An Interview with Dr. Johanna Oksala
Johanna Oksala is the Arthur J. Schmitt Professor of Philosophy. She joined Loyola University Chicago in August 2019. Professor Oksala’s areas of expertise are political philosophy, feminist philosophy, environmental philosophy, Foucault, and phenomenology. She is the author of five monographs and over fifty refereed journal articles and book chapters. Her work has been translated into eight languages. Oksala is on the editorial board of several academic journals, and she has given over a hundred conference papers and invited talks internationally.
The following is an interview conducted by Conor Beath, MA student in the Philosophy department.
Conor Beath: Can you tell us a bit about your academic philosophical journey and how you ultimately came to Loyola?
Johanna Oksala: I earned my PhD in 2003 from the University of Helsinki, Finland. My thesis was published two years later as a monograph, Foucault on Freedom, by Cambridge University Press (2005). This undoubtedly helped me to secure my first permanent position in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Dundee, UK, in 2006. Rather than being hired as Lecturer (equivalent of Assistant Professor in the USA), I was hired immediately at the level of a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor in the USA). I held this permanent position for four years, until 2011, when I decided to return to Finland to take up a competitive research opportunity as the Principal Investigator of a research project funded by the Finnish National Academy of Science (Rethinking Feminist Politics: Gender, Globalization, and Neoliberal Governmentality, 2012-2017). I have also held positions as Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Department of Politics at The New School for Social Research (2013–2016) and as Associate Professor of Environmental Philosophy at Pratt Institute for Art and Design (2017-2019).
CB: You have written and published a number of monographs on Foucault, most recently Feminist Experiences: Foucauldian and Phenomenological Investigations, published by Northwestern University Press. What initially drew you to Foucault and what do you find to be particularly compelling or urgent about his work?
JO: I belong to a generation that was studying Continental and feminist philosophy in the 1990s. I think it is no exaggeration to say that we were all completely blown away by Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which had been published in 1990 (even the people who hated the book, hated it with passion!). For me, Gender Trouble became a model for what philosophy, at its best, could do: investigate a contemporary political problem, completely change the way people were perceiving it, and in the process open up a totally new range of political possibilities. So, I started writing my MA thesis on the key philosophical arguments of Gender Trouble and in so doing realized that I had to study Foucault. And once I started doing that, I understood that the key philosophical moves that Butler deploys in Gender Trouble to such a brilliant effect came from Foucault. My PhD thesis then became a study of Foucault, and that theoretical framework has served me well ever since. What is compelling about Foucault’s thought, for me, is that it provides a philosophical toolbox that you can take up and use. I have used it to critically investigate a number of things: ontology, violence, politics, gender, neoliberalism, and, most recently, the conceptions of nature that underlie contemporary environmental debates – just to name a few topics! For me, reading Foucault essentially means training oneself to identify the constitutive effects of power relations, and once you have learnt to do that, things will never look the same again. Foucault is by no means the only philosopher I work with, however. Phenomenology, feminist philosophy, and Marxist theory are also important theoretical frameworks for me.
CB: Much of your work intervenes at the intersection of the theoretical and the practical, particularly in regards to your scholarship in Feminist and Environmental Philosophy. How do you conceptualize the relationship between scholarly theory and practice in your own work?
JO: This is an interesting question, but I am not sure that I would characterize my philosophical work as intersecting the theoretical and the practical. I try to situate theory as a basis for critical engagement with the social world, but I see my work nevertheless as being theory. In other words, it is academic philosophy, even when it addresses contemporary social and political problems that I perceive as pressing. The practical effects that it might or might not have are therefore always necessarily indirect, delayed, and at best, part of a slow, cumulative shift in hegemony. That does not mean that philosophy cannot or should not have political and social impact – as I noted in connection with Butler’s work, at its best it does exactly that – but I would nevertheless insist that its value cannot be measured solely or even primarily in terms of its political utility or social impact.
CB: What sort of courses are you considering teaching while at Loyola? Will these courses additionally serve as extensions of your own research and scholarship? If so, where do you see your own work moving, or, what do you envision as future directions for your work?
JO: My plan is definitely to teach courses that are extensions of my research and scholarship! I believe that that is the best way to create high-quality graduate courses in areas where I can contribute something distinctive, and that students will find exciting and relevant. So I would like to teach courses on Foucault that include some of the lectures that are now being published for the first time; courses on phenomenology that focus on the recent critical turn, foregrounding questions such as gender and race; courses on feminist philosophy, particularly on Marxist-feminist theory, which is a field I am working in at the moment; courses on political philosophy that both reassess the canon from the perspective of contemporary political problems, and vice versa, investigate contemporary political problems with the help of political philosophy; and courses on environmental philosophy, particularly on climate change and its implications for political philosophy, an issue that I hope to investigate in my future work.
CB: Philosophy, and the academy more broadly, have not always been, and still struggle to be, inclusive professional environments that can accommodate a variety of perspectives and motivations. At Loyola, our MAP program and diversity initiatives are meant to address some of this asymmetry, and as a scholar working in Feminist theory, you know the challenges firsthand. What, if any, contribution do you think scholarship in Feminist, Queer, and Critical Race Studies can make towards inclusivity, awareness, and diversity efforts in philosophy departments?
JO: I believe that our department at Loyola, like most philosophy departments, needs to work hard to achieve a broader representation of philosophical perspectives. This task will determine the future of philosophy: if philosophy continues to get dismissed as a Eurocentric relic in a globalizing world, its future will be bleak. Diversity initiatives are obviously important, but it is also essential to be wary of tokenism – questions of racial justice cannot be reduced to counting the number of black people on campus, for example. As universities are increasingly competing to boost their diversity, we must demand a transformation that is both deeper and more radical. We must rethink the canon, change curricula, reassess what we do in classrooms, renegotiate the boundaries of what we think is “serious” philosophy, strip privileges, and flatten many of the unnecessary hierarchies and inequalities that define our profession. Scholarship in Feminist, Queer, and Critical Race Studies can provide us important theoretical tools for this, but also concrete institutional spaces that are going to be indispensable.
CB: Having taught at several universities in a number of cities, is there anything unique or different about Loyola that interests or excites you?
JO: What I really appreciate about Loyola is the central, formative, or even transformative role it grants philosophy in university education. As we know, the relevance of humanities and liberal arts education is under heavy assault around the globe. Universities are increasingly moving towards a neoliberal business model in which they are selling career services and investment opportunities in human capital to students who are paying customers. I find it striking that the universities founded on religious intellectual traditions seem to be able to resist this trend most effectively. The common prejudice is that these universities are centers of dogma, unquestioned values, and biases, while the neoliberal business universities are governed by value-neutral rationality. Such a dichotomy effectively masks the fact that neoliberal rationality is another normative order. It promotes values such as profit-making, investment opportunity, and individual freedom of choice, whilst completely failing to question or even to recognize their status as values. The importance granted to critical philosophical inquiry at Loyola suggests the opposite: questioning dogma, exposing bias, and re-evaluating values are the explicit aims of education here.