Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) and the new chair of the program, considers herself a “sociologist of the body.” This comes through in the name of the class she is teaching this semester, FGSS 321: BioFeminisms: Science, Matter, Agency. Pitts-Taylor sat down with The Argus to discuss the importance of reading, feminism in the realm of science, and her indifference toward Billy Joel.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Victoria Pitts-Taylor: I love this question, especially since right now I am still moving into my office. I have boxes of books in my trunk, and I carry one up each class. But what am I reading right now? I read a wide variety of things but usually at night I read fiction. I’m reading Olive Kitteridge at the moment. It’s this novel in stories. And that’s what I love about it the most, other than that the writing is wonderful and that the prose is just excellent; it’s also short stories and a novel at the same time. I love the short story form, but one always has this sense of loss at the end of a short story. I wait every week for The New Yorker to come, and I read the short story every single time, and once it’s over, it’s over, and you have to say goodbye to the characters and the writing style and the world that you entered, and that’s it. So even though I really love the form, I hate the brevity of the short story, so this is the perfect fit for me. It’s got the short story form in each chapter and yet the commitment to the characters and the scene and the setting of the tone over the long haul. So it’s my dream leisure reading.
A: Are you reading anything for your academic life that you find interesting?
VPT: Yes! I just read this paper by Loïc Wacquant, who is a sociologist who is pretty well known for having worked with Pierre Bourdieu, who is a really famous French sociologist, and he took Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” and did an ethnography to explore that. Habitus is the idea that we learn culture through body practices, that culture becomes embodied…. And Wacquant took this idea and applied it to an ethnographic study of boxers. So he hung out in this really working class, or poor, neighborhood in Chicago and watched people learn how to box, and he found habitus there. He has written a new paper for a journal called Qualitative Sociology on what he thinks sociologists should undertake, which he calls enactive ethnography. He argues that enactive ethnography is a way of exploring the world, doing what we normally call participant observation, but he wants to do observant participation. He really wants sociologists to get into the world, roll up their sleeves, and learn the skills and competencies of people that they are studying so that they basically become the phenomenon that they are studying.
I was asked to comment on this paper… and I was asked to respond to it for two reasons. One, because I am a sociologist of the body; I write about body practices. And two, because Wacquant uses some naturalized philosophy and embodied mind theory, which draws from neuroscience, in order to make his argument. So he’s mentioning people such as Antonio Damasio, and George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, and Andy Clark, and I’ve recently been writing about those same folks. So I’ve been reading Wacquant’s piece and writing a response to that that takes a feminist angle on both body practices and the limits of being able to become “other,” the phenomenon that you are studying.
A: You said you are a sociologist of the body. Is that what drew you to the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program?
VPT: Yeah, I think so. I just got to Wesleyan. I was at CUNY for 15 years and started out in the sociology program in 1999 as an assistant professor at Queens College, and eventually I worked my way up and began teaching doctoral students in sociology in 2005 at the graduate center, and eventually I got asked to run the Women’s Studies program there. I had been writing a little about gender here and there, but I really got involved in thinking about gender studies as a discipline—or as an interdiscipline—when I took on that role. So I did that for five years, and I also co-edited a journal called “Women’s Studies Quarterly,” and I co-taught a class with a Victorianist, and we taught together feminist thinking from Wollstonecraft and onwards. I think my interest in the body has been very sociological but also deeply invested in issues of difference. So gender, and sexuality, and race, and class: the different ways our bodies and body practices both reflect those differences that are broader social differences and also in some ways contest them.
A: I know feminism can be a tricky subject and is talked about a lot on campus. How would you define feminism?
VPT: I think feminism is a perspective. It’s a lens through which to see the world, and it’s one that has a long history, and so it’s also in that sense a perspective with its own language and own concepts. They all seem to revolve around issues of power and inequality, rooted in the power and inequality surrounding gender. But also far extending beyond gender to think about the multiple ways in which people experience power relationships. So extended into transnational issues and issues of citizenship and race and class, too.
A: You’re teaching FGSS 321: BioFeminisms: Science, Matter, Agency this semester. Could you explain the relationship between biology and feminism?
VPT: I love that question. I’ve spent the entire semester with my students trying to define the term “BioFeminism,” which I just made up for the class, and we keep coming up with different answers. Essentially, feminism has an interesting relationship with the biological sciences. For a long time in the ’70s and the ’80s, a lot of feminist work was really arguing against biology. Biology offered, at least from the perspective of feminists, a fixed account of sex difference that was rooted in nature, rooted in evolution, rooted in reproduction, and feminists built a lot of their early work contesting biology, contesting a biological account and arguing for the significance of sociality and culture. So for feminists in those second wave days, the cultural and the social were what made sex differences count as gender differences. And I think times have changed over the past 40 years, and quite early on there were many feminists who were trained as scientists who felt very isolated from their non-feminist peers in the sciences and also from feminists who didn’t know enough about the sciences. Anne Fausto-Sterling is a good example of someone who was writing in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and Linda Birke and many other people who were interested in science and trying to figure out how we could have a valid scientific account of the world that was also responsible to the criticisms. Feminists had brought these epistemological criticisms that said that scientists bring their own orientations and biases to observing the natural world, and so the whole course was set up to try to set up the relationship between epistemology, or how we know the world, and ontology, the essence of the world. And all sorts of different ways in which feminists have wrangled with that.
A: What role do you see the FGSS program playing on the Wesleyan campus?
VPT: I think FGSS is a program that offers support to all of the student groups who are doing their own activism and engagement. So, for example, we are constantly giving, and co-sponsoring, and funding student-led projects across the campus, whether they’re involved with activism or bringing performers and speakers. We have a group of students who are producing their own zine, so we support those projects. We also bring an academic coherence for many students who are interested in majoring in Feminist, Gender, [and] Sexuality Studies, and they use the major [the FGSS program] as a way to make sense of their interests and this topic that’s often very interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary. We help students construct a theme or a concentration, and each carves a path, often in conjunction with another major that helps them think about what sort of interests they have and what they want to bring their sex, gender, and sexuality lens to bear on in the world, whether it is literature or history, or transnational issues, or technology, or body topics, or health and illness, or anthropology, and on and on. I also hope that we’ll increasingly provide events that help bring people together from all these different places on the campus… We’re also going to run a series of events on the theme of social death and survival: race, class, gender, and vulnerability… I see us as glue, one source of community glue, a site to bring together all of these different groups and interests, academic and non-academic interests in gender and sexuality.
A: What is one thing you hope students take away from courses here?
VPT: That’s really a hard question. Our students are extremely good at critique. They have a really strong critical muscle in their brain, and I want students to also become comfortable with positive critique, and creating innovations, so that they feel that they can not only tell me what’s wrong with the world and with the text that they are reading but also what is right about it and be able to envision possibilities.
A: Have any books been particularly inspirational to you along this path?
VPT: Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth.” I love that book, and I’ve actually taken a few pages of it, Xeroxed them, and passed them around in several of my classes because it’s this wonderful example of intersectionality theory and the coming together of race, class, and gender and how that can be very complicated. It’s also just beautifully written. I really think that is one of my favorite books.
I love novels and short stories, and I think in a different life I would have tried to be a writer, but at the time I was considering that, I wasn’t talented enough to have the guts to do it. I find fiction to be kind of a lifesaver. When I was a little kid in a stressed-out household, I made this little room under the stairs. There was a storage area with no windows or anything, and I dragged a lamp in there and a sleeping bag.
A: I think you may be Harry Potter.
VPT: I think so! I mean, I wasn’t locked in there, but I hid in there with books, and I think books have saved me through all the hard times in my life and they’ve also become friends. I’m really grateful to people who write and who are good writers, and increasingly I’ve gotten interested in creative nonfiction. I’m always amazed when I read really good magazine writing, and that blows my mind. I’m a big fan of The New Yorker because it’s always supported the short story, but lately I’ve come to realize that they have got some really good writers producing the creative nonfiction. I find myself reading articles about topics I couldn’t care less about, like golf and NASCAR, or—Oh gosh, I read this article recently about Billy Joel, and I couldn’t care less about Billy Joel, but the writing was good. I find that these magazine writers, when they are good, they can really make you care about something. Also, I want to plug in for radio listening. Because I have a long commute now, I’ve been listening to podcasts, like “This American Life.” It’s really amazing. I’m kind of a junkie now.