“Sleeping with Philosophers”: An Interview with Ada Jaarsma on Philosopher Pillow Portraits – Ela Przybylo
As a crafting, feministing, queer-theorizing philosopher, Ada Jaarsma has honed in on an ethics of “sleeping with philosophers.” Sleeping with philosophers is an art form that reflects on the textured ambivalences of intimacy. Pressed up tight against the flesh of a philosopher’s face or a philosopher’s text, we develop mixed attachments of love and hate, affixation and opposition. Ada comments that this is the nature of all close reading – “affections and allergies” – and perhaps of all closeness. And, if ambivalence is at the base of intimacy, sleeping with philosophers becomes, both metaphorically and practically, a way for the philosopher to undertake a practice of coping with the textures, stains, and vibrant colourations of sleeping flush and turning our backs on those we think with and love on.
More specifically, “sleeping with philosophers” is a project underway in Ada’s fine textile art, and specifically her series of “Pillow Portraits.” “Pillow Portraits” consists of a repertoire of pillows, lovingly quilted and embroidered by Ada for her kin. Pieces include a Michel Foucault populated by cats, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman accompanied by tigers and cats, Simone de Beauvoir made from floral and sequin prints, a Queen Elizabeth I mermaid-renaissance pillow, Theodor Adorno in ultra-colourful patterning, goats in neon, and more recently her work has expanded to non-pillow forms such as a wall hanging of Audre Lorde’s “No reckoning allowed / save the marvellous arithmetics / of distance” accompanied by an octopus. In this interview, I talk with Ada about the craft of philosophy, the philosophy of pillow-making, and the intimate art of sleeping with the philosophers that dominate and submit to her heart.
Ela Przybylo: As a queer feminist philosopher, what drives you to make pillow portraits of philosophers?
Ada Jaarsma: We spend inordinate amounts of time with the thinkers we dedicate ourselves to reading and working with. We domesticate them, even as they rule us as benevolent or overly bossy authority figures. Each of us must negotiate these intimacies. Will our chosen thinkers determine our frameworks so thoroughly that it becomes hard to identify our debt to their thinking? Or will they occupy more ambivalent roles in our work?
There is something about a face on a pillow that, to me, invokes these inevitable questions. We can cuddle with a pillow, or we can put our backs against it. We can impose our own frame upon a thinker, asserting some control that we otherwise might relinquish (Foucault surrounded by cats, for example, or my current project of Derrida infused with fonts). We can also indulge some of our own wistful wishes. I heard Judith Butler (2013) describe the character of Hannah Arendt, as depicted in Margarethe von Trotta’s film (2012), as overly hetero-coquettish. Instead of that depiction, Butler expressed a desire that I share for a more tomboy Arendt. Along these lines, I’ll soon begin working on “Dapper Hannah Arendt” for a beloved queer philosopher-friend. Do we begin to queer philosophy when we confess the sparky joy we feel for a thinker? Or the thrall of unrequited longing? Or the impatience of an overdue breakup? I hope so.
EP: What sorts of intimacies does the crafting of philosophers onto pillows afford you? Does this detailed and time-consuming work alter your relationships with these philosophers, including Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Simone de Beauvoir, and Theodor Adorno? How would you describe your relationship with these philosophers – is it sexual, asexual, erotic, is it nonmonogamous?
AJ: Flipping this question a bit, it strikes me that theorists invoke different kinds of relationships with readers. Some solicit stern versions of monogamy, and others are much more erotically expansive. Readers bring their own vested interests to such relationships, in turn. From flings to fidelity, we manifest a range of erotic practices in how we read and take up thinkers. My favourite academics are the ones who are lushly in smit with the thinkers they work on (and whose crushes spark more and new infatuations).
The discipline of philosophy tends to ask readers to become monogamous practitioners, regardless of the erotic orientation of their chosen thinker: who do you work on, which ‘Name’ do you adhere to? These are the kinds of identitarian questions that get posed within the context of philosophy (it’s hard to think of another discipline as attached to monogamous attachments in this way). But as Janet Halley (1993) wrote in the heyday of queer theory, straightness is more likely than not a protestation of normalcy – a bribe, taken in order to square away one’s misfit with hetero-dictates, rather than a naturalized identity – and the same can be said of academic monogamous attachments. I’d like to draw out the nonmonogamous eros of philosophy by making pillow-portraits for friends.
In terms of my own relationship with the philosophers I’ve portrayed on pillows: there’s something particular about making a portrait of a beloved for someone else. It triangulates the encounter. I’d say the practice of portraiture in general is joyfully nonmonogamous. And of course there’s an erotics to gifting, in addition to the fleshy stitchy work of the crafting itself.
EP: What do the pillow portraits offer you as a queer and feminist thinker and how do they augment your theoretical work and your work in the philosophy classroom? What relationship do you see between yourself as a philosopher and yourself as a craft-artist? How has the making of pillows informed your philosophical work?
AJ: There’s an affinity between crafting and teaching, for sure, as your questions suggest. Along these lines, Erin Manning, who is reflecting on the possibility of radical pedagogy, advises teachers: “Don’t look too hard for the through-thread. Don’t worry too much about drawing a line. Make learning a weave” (2015).
I’ve become captivated by Manning’s set of metaphors here. Rather than call a class to order, as Manning puts it (she is drawing from Fred Moten and Stefan Harvey’s stunning book The Undercommons), let’s tune into the connections and the sensations that precede – and of course exceed – the bounds of classrooms. If learning is a weave, Manning writes, then learning has the real potential for creating its own value.
There is a kind of artistry to teaching, on this account, but it is one that is indebted to the fragile and emergent encounters that make learning happen: its weft and warp. As instructors, we often presume that classrooms adhere to determined and static patterns (we look to desks and lecterns, for example, as design elements by which students and teachers can perform their prescribed roles). We call the class to order when we solicit preset ways of inhabiting the space together. But, when we resist the call to order as teachers and as students, we get to experiment – as non-conforming users, as crip theorists put it – with the inventive possibilities of classroom spaces. Then, classrooms become sites that contain the very live capacity for producing new values. I want to stake so much hope in such experiments. In these catastrophic times, it’s becoming so important to ask: can classrooms be places where new capacities and new ideas actually take place? I want to say yes, but an affirmative answer shifts the emphasis from teacherly authority to the creative dissidence of everyone who is engaging with learning.
I hope that my pillow-portraits express a dissident approach to philosophy. Definitely, I’m convinced that there’s a non-conforming ethos to the very act of affirming intimacies between readers and thinkers. And perhaps there’s a helpful irreverence to a non-representational take on an iconic photograph of a famous thinker.
EP: Following your philosophical and craft work, I am struck by the extent of generosity in your work: generosity to the philosophers you weave into your academic and pillow pieces, to young thinkers and students, and to friends whom you gift with your art. Can you speak to how you view and problematize generosity in both your academic and pillow work?
AJ: This is a beautiful question. It’s crucial, I think, to respect the asymmetry between teacher and student or between giver and receiver. And there’s a practice to carrying out such respect that can be fraught in the context of academic relations: it needs to be navigated, each time again. I think about this a lot because teaching can involve very real investments in others. It’s absolutely vital that there not be a teleology or a set of expectations to the eros that sustains such investment.
It’s possible to “give” to one’s students, for example, in ways that are intrusive or overly demanding of students: to offer help, but with stringent strings attached. Of course, one can also simply “withhold” from students (and, looking back, this seems like the more common tendency. In my experience, teachers are more likely to hold their cards up to their chest, an approach that entrenches academic conventions as mystified and pretty exclusionary. Generosity, in such contexts, is a radical act).
But, in contrast to these two examples, a teacher might proffer tangible suggestions to their student without requiring specific uptake in return (laying their own cards out on the table, for example, inviting students to navigate the terms of the academic game themselves). As Maggie Nelson might put it, this is a form of eros without teleology (2015, 44). Just as we might make a pillow for a friend, and give it to them without any transactional expectation, we can find ways to invest in students or peers in open-ended, non-transactional ways.
EP: You write that “We love the thinkers we read, yet perhaps we long to domesticate (and cozy up to) them.” How do you think the act of “sleeping with philosophers” or “cozying up to them” transforms the way in which we read philosophers and philosophy? What does it mean to “domesticate” a philosopher? Are there some philosophers that are more deserving of domestication and cozying up to than others?
AJ: Yes! Our affinities for thinkers are never neutral. I’ve long felt the significance of assigning texts to students, for example. Formative encounters with theorists yield such significance for a person’s trajectory, politically and existentially. And so when I ask friends – whose face would you like to cozy up to? – I’m putting them on the spot to disclose their own judgments about who is worthy of affection.
Kristie Dotson (2012) suggests that if we were honest about our academic work, we’d admit our allegiances to certain thinkers – as she puts it, to our participation in specific fandoms. This is such a great suggestion for making sense of the exclusionary weirdness of philosophy. Philosophy-folks often judge others in light of their own, utterly partial fandoms. And, as Dotson points out, the discipline sustains its white hegemony by granting some fandoms the right to call out other fandoms as non-philosophical. If we were all hailed to be upfront about our conceptual paramours, then the very grounding of disciplinary conversations could shift towards much more open terrain. (I imagine philosophy becoming more like the discipline of anthropology, for example, more explicit about its affective attachments and therefore more attuned to its own colonial ambitions.)
EP: You mentioned, drawing on Maggie Nelson, that we become overly infatuated with certain philosophers and critical thinkers through a process of fan-like devotion. What role does infatuation play in your making of pillow portraits?
AJ: Isn’t a crush one of the most motivating kinds of attachments? So much work can emerge because of the momentum of a crush (like brand-new, impassioned lesson plans, or presentations infused with ardour and conviction). And yet, as Nelson points out in The Argonauts, there’s a riskiness to such work: our crushes can overrun our capacity to take care with the concepts or problems that likely sparked our infatuation in the first place. We might pay homage to thinkers that we love but, in the doing, oversimplify with sloppy praise (2015, 45, 62).
I want to turn these insights from Nelson into cues for philosopher pillow-portraits. For example, I’m starting to plan a Freud portrait for a dear psychiatry friend of mine, who I’m collaborating with on a big project about placebos. I’m envisioning a large gleeful Freud, with the slogan “Placebo!” above him. Freud is one of those thinkers who is likely to defy our attempts at crushy domestication. And so it could proffer a kind of effusive satisfaction, over-simplifying him and his psychoanalytic project in this way. Imagine if this were a resolution to the endlessly vexing tensions within psychoanalysis: ah, it all comes back to placebo! (Of course, new questions would then emerge: which placebo? And to what placebo effect? Is Freud himself a placebo? Do we solicit placebo effects through our intellectual crushes?)
EP: I am also drawn to how you mark these pillows as portraits. How do you decide which philosopher is worth your time and deserving of a portrait? What does it mean to you to feature the face of the philosopher in the portrait? What does it feel like to have your face up against the face of the philosopher you worked into the pillow? Your newest work on Audre Lorde is neither a pillow nor a face, how did you decide on this representational shift? Also, your Michel Foucault pillow features cats and is titled “Foucault with Cats.” What motivated making Foucault’s face, hand, and the background through the use of a cat print?
AJ: I’ve learned so much from Claudia Rankine about the stakes of representation: about who is doing the representing, who is being represented, and the form that representation takes. Together with Beth Loffreda, Rankine (2015) explains that when someone asserts the right to represent everyone else’s perspective or experience, such assertions are often the marker of the whiteness of whiteness. If this is indeed a desire that grips us, then Rankine and Loffreda advise us to interrogate this longing for unmitigated access to others’ lives, instead of indulging it. Since the system of white supremacy depends upon the unmarked status of whiteness, it is potentially a critical act for white individuals to confess and then seek to subvert such tendencies. We are not free, as white folks, to represent others without taking on the burden of careful self-critique. And so I think there’s a real difference between creating an homage to Michel Foucault (adorned with kitty cats, a tribute for a Foucauldian friend who possibly loves cats even more than she loves Foucault) and creating an homage to Audre Lorde.
There are patterns to how racialized thinkers get represented in the context of whiteness. Angela Davis writes that, for a great many years, there was a persistent tendency by (white) academics to represent her by way of “the Afro.” This metonymy between Davis and her appearance, she explains, was both humbling and humiliating: humiliating because “it reduces a politics of liberation to a politics of fashion”; humbling because it demonstrates “the fragility and mutability of historical images” (1994, 37). And so, when a dear friend who is sensitive to this history of representation asked for a portrait-ode to Lorde, we decided together that this portrait would be less straight-forwardly-representational. We brainstormed a large wall-hanging for a library/living-room (it hangs above the pillows, instead of among them), one that depicts an octopus that is made up of a great many elephants: a cross-species portrait. My friend chose an excerpt from one of her favourite ocean poems by Lorde, Smelling the Wind: “No reckoning allowed / save the marvellous arithmetics / of distance.” And she hung the portrait high on the wall so that the viewer feels like a part of the ocean ecology.
EP: The last decade has seen a flourishing of feminist and queer activist craftwork; how do you see your own work in relation to this? What would you say to feminist and queer crafters, fiber artists, and craft-inclined feminists?
AJ: It makes the world a more ardent and crush-inspiring space, when feminist and queer artists experiment with the fuzzy lines between crafts and art, between design and function. I’m especially inspired by fiber and textile artists because they exemplify the gorgeous or gruesome transmuting powers of materials. In my own life, it’s been an empowering shift to recognize professional activities, which can feel mundane and overly ordinary, as replete with artistry. If teaching can be an art-form, then all kinds of possibilities open up for infusing our spaces and relations with erotic (if not teleological!) vigour.
Butler, Judith. 2013. Question & Answer period, “Judith Butler’s Parting Ways” panel, American Academy of Religion, Baltimore, MD.
Davis, Angela Y. 1994. “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion and Nostalgia,” Critical Inquiry 21(1): 37-45.
Dotson, Kristie. 2012. How is this paper philosophy? Comparative Philosophy 3(1): 3-29.
Halley, Janet E. 1993. “The Construction of Heterosexuality,” Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 82-104.
Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Compositions.
Manning, Erin. 2015. “10 Propositions for a Radical Pedagogy, or How to Recreate Value,” Inflexions No. 8, Radical Pedagogies.
Nelson, Maggie. 2015. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
Ela Przybylo is Postdoctoral Scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor in Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. Her work explores the asexual genealogies of queer and feminist political desires, and has appeared or is forthcoming in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Sexualities, Feminism & Psychology, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, among others. Ela is also a Founding Editor of the inter-media, peer-reviewed, online journal Feral Feminisms and a graphic designer. You can read Ela’s work at https://asu.academia.edu/ElaPrzybylo.
Ada S. Jaarsma is associate professor of Philosophy at Mount Royal University, where she teaches critical theory, continental philosophy, queer and feminist theory, existentialism and philosophy of science. Her book, Kierkegaard after the Genome: Science, Existence and Belief in This World is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan and explores the existential nature of the post-genomic turn in science. In addition to her work in existentialism and science studies, she collaborates with Suze Berkhout (University of Toronto) on the feminist philosophical import of placebos and placebo effects. Recent articles are published in Gender and Education, The European Legacy, and Studies in Philosophy and Education. Ada will soon be launching a podcast, “The Learning Gene,” that explores the philosophy, science and drama of the classroom. You can read Ada’s work at https://mtroyal.academia.edu/AdaJaarsma and view her philosopher pillow portraits on her tumblr.