About Carrie Jenkins, poly philosopher making waves
Best for last? Here's my final post of three in recent days about poly philosophy professor and new-book author Carrie Jenkins, who's getting in the news.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, read by college faculty and administrators everywhere, has published a 4,000-word article about her life and career, the weak record of formal philosophy on the subject of romantic love, and the literally shitty (as in, human feces) place for women in academic philosophy's very male world. High points:
‘I Have Multiple Loves’
Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory
Photos: Jimmy Jeong / Chronicle Review
By Moira Weigel
Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and I have plans to meet her boyfriend for lunch. But first we have to go home to walk the dog. Her husband, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, is out of town at a conference for the weekend, and earlier that morning Mezzo, their labradoodle mix, got skunked; Jenkins says Mezzo is still feeling shaky. Before I traveled to meet her in Vancouver last June, she told me on the phone that most "mono" people misunderstand the challenges of polyamory — the practice of being openly involved romantically with more than one person at a time.
"People ask, ‘Tell me about the downsides,’ " Jenkins says. "They expect the answer to be that it’s so hard jealousy-wise. But the most common answer is timing and scheduling. I’m a fairly organized person, so I don’t find it super challenging."
The claim is easy to believe. In her professional life, too, Jenkins is managing to do several things at once. Since 2011 she has held a prestigious Canada Research Chair in the philosophy department at the University of British Columbia; she has taught 200-person lecture courses in metaphysics to undergraduates and advanced graduate seminars in epistemology. This semester she is co-teaching an interdisciplinary survey on the theme of "Knowledge and Power," introducing students to Freud, Russell, and Foucault in short order.
Jenkins is also in a band, called 21st Century Monads, in which she and several other academics write songs about the philosophy of numbers....
Jenkins wrote about polyamory because she felt she had to. She and her husband were tired of living in the closet.
...As we walk Mezzo around Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighborhood about 20 minutes away from campus by the green electric scooter that Jenkins drives to work every morning, she starts explaining why she prefers the term "polyamory" to "nonmonogamy."
...It took about a year, Jenkins recalls, before "I started to realize that I was in love with Ray as well as in love with Jon. And it probably took even more time to acknowledge it." After that, "the poly label started to feel like more of a useful fit."
Despite the personal clarity that she has gained on these points, socially the relationship has not been easy. Even in liberal settings, where people might not blink at the idea of a friend sleeping around or dating someone of the same gender, Jenkins says that "mononormativity" persists: The ruling assumption is that a person can be in love with only one other person at a time. (She recalls a colleague becoming extremely discomfited recently at her husband’s birthday party, when Hsu introduced himself as "Carrie’s boyfriend.") Still, Jenkins believes that we are in urgent need of a more expansive concept of love. And she believes that philosophy, the discipline named for the "love of knowledge," needs to become more expansive — treating a wider range of questions and addressing a broader audience — in order to help create it.
Jenkins did not set out to become a love expert. After growing up in Wales, she entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and pursued a degree in analytic philosophy; she stayed on to write a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of mathematics. "There’s a tradition of philosophy that I grew up in which is quite narrow in terms of the topics that it would address, in academic journal publications," she recalls. "We were addressing fundamental problems about space and time."
She published her first book, Grounding Concepts: An Empirical Basis for Arithmetical Knowledge (Oxford University Press), in 2008. ...
Following that book, Jenkins published a series of articles on theories of explanation. However, she began thinking more and more about love. It seems logical that a thinker who spent so much time re-evaluating the ways in which experience shaped metaphysical knowledge might attempt to analyze her own life using the tools of philosophy. As Jenkins tells it, however, her inspiration came from Bertrand Russell — one of the founding fathers of analytic philosophy and a titanic presence at Cambridge.
"What I didn’t realize when I was studying his philosophy of mathematics was that he wrote about all these other things," Jenkins recalls. She particularly means his 1929 book, Marriage and Morals, in which Russell advocated for what he called "free love." Jenkins calls the book "a precursor of the contemporary sex-positive movement." She thinks that a lot of Russell’s work on love and marriage was ahead of its time, but that he himself remained blind to its philosophical importance.
Jenkins with her husband (right) and boyfriend.
...While philosophers trained in the Continental tradition — thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Derrida — have written about love, analytic philosophy continues to dominate North American departments. Increasingly, Jenkins has become frustrated with the way it separates philosophy from "real life" concerns.
Personal considerations finally drove her to start making this argument in public. ...
"Despite various kinds of nervousness (justified or otherwise) about disclosure," they wrote, "being closetedly non-monogamous (effectively, mono-acting) has its disadvantages too. We’re ready to be done with it. Academic philosophy is a small world; certain areas of it are very small indeed. What if someone happens to see one of us with somebody else, and assumes (not thinking about the alternatives) that we’re cheating? We each hate the idea of being taken for a cheater, or of being pitied as the spouse of a cheater...."
Jenkins and Ichikawa called their letter "On Being the Only Ones." Soon after they published it, they learned that they weren’t. Strangers, and couples they had known casually for years, started approaching them at conferences, they say, and thanking them for writing the piece. Many said they had quietly lived the same way and felt relieved to be able to speak about it. Emboldened by a new sense that she had an activist mission — that her coming out might help others like her, and that she, as a tenured professor, had the privilege to do so — Jenkins began writing more about nonmonogamy. She wrote about it in The Globe and Mail and Slate. She went on CBC to give radio interviews. ...
...The Cosmopolitan UK spread not only conveyed the opposite of the message that Jenkins had wanted to send. It turned her into a target of abuse online. Like many women who write for the public, particularly about gender or sexuality, Jenkins gets a steady stream of hate mail. Strangers threaten her on Twitter: Why are you acting like this is an ok thing? Get herpes and die, slut. Sharia law looks more attractive by the day. ...
Meanwhile, Jenkins has had to contend with harassment within her discipline, too. She declines to offer specifics but says, "Anonymous commentaries in the philosophy blogosphere can be pretty grim." The field has been widely criticized from within by scholars who say that not only is the curriculum male-centric, but gender discrimination is routine. In recent years, several high-profile cases of sexual harassment have further sullied its reputation. ...
Jenkins emphasizes that this image not only affects who is doing philosophical work. It also shapes what kind of work gets done.
The debate over what kind of philosophy gets rewarded blew up recently in a more specific storm, in which Jenkins found herself at the center. It started as a set of disputes surrounding Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor who founded the Philosophical Gourmet Report, and ran it until recently. The Gourmet Report ranks philosophy departments, based on surveys filled out by hundreds of academic philosophers every year, and enjoys enormous influence within the field. It has also caused consternation among critics who have questioned its methodology and say it is biased against philosophy departments with a Continental orientation or an Asian one.
...It was one of several critiques of the Gourmet Report that prompted a flurry of online and email exchanges between Leiter and his critics, and preceded a statement that Jenkins published in the summer of 2014 pledging to behave with civility in her professional life.
Many in the field, including Leiter, read the statement as an attack on him. He responded by sending Jenkins a derisive email and tweeting that she was a "sanctimonious arse." When Jenkins made the email public, other philosophers rallied to her defense. They circulated a "statement of concern," eventually signed by 600 faculty and students, saying that Leiter’s actions had harmed Jenkins’s health and ability to work, and refusing to participate in the Gourmet Report’s surveys until he stepped down as the editor. Leiter published a series of posts complaining of a "smear campaign" and that October stepped down, though he remains on the Gourmet Report’s advisory board. Later that year, he threatened to sue Jenkins for falsely portraying him.
Jenkins refuses to speak about the Leiter controversy. Last summer she — along with Jennings and two other vocal critics of Leiter’s — each received an envelope full of human feces. Leiter denied sending the packages and has attributed them to someone who must be trying to embarrass him.
I n contrast with these dramas, Jenkins’s book What Love Is reads calmly....
"We are creating space in our ongoing cultural conversations to question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love," Jenkins writes. "I’m personally invested, as are you...."
The central goal of What Love Is is to abolish what Jenkins calls "the romantic mystique," a deliberate allusion to Betty Friedan’s classic second-wave text, The Feminine Mystique. "On the one hand, we’ve accepted the idea of love as a tremendously significant social force: something that shapes and reshapes the entire trajectories of lives and serves as a focal point for all kinds of values," Jenkins writes. On the other hand, "we have simultaneously normalized the idea that love is a mystery: something hard or impossible to comprehend."
...While Jenkins criticizes those who are too quick to call "insufficiently examined ideology … ‘natural’ or ‘biological,’ " she also emphasizes that recognizing the biological elements of romantic love can have socially emancipatory effects....
"Let’s not forget that it took many years of serious scientific research to convince (most) people that there is no biologically superior race or gender," writes Jenkins. "Getting a proper grip on the biology of love may help us unravel the idea that there is one biologically superior way to love."
Read the whole article (Feb. 3, 2017).
Update Feb. 23: A new interview in Vox: Is our view of romantic love too narrow? A philosopher makes the case for polyamory.
...I want to start a conversation. I don't care whether everyone agrees with what I say. I just want people to be talking about this. I think that's the way progress gets done. ... I think we can make progress if we get more people thinking about monogamy, about romantic love, and why it looks the way it does and how much control we have over that.
I keep coming back to this idea that we have so much control over what love is, what love looks like, what stories we tell, what is depicted in romantic comedies, what stories are told in romance novels. All of these ways we determine what love is are a social construct. We have so much control over that. That means we are responsible for getting it right.