A Discussion With Professor Sabeen Ahmed

Howard Wang

Sabeen Ahmed is an assistant professor of philosophy and peace & conflict studies. Her areas of focus are the political philosophy of race, philosophy of law, colonial/imperial studies, and the work of Foucault. Some select courses she teaches are Introduction to Philosophy: Subject and Selves; First Year Seminar: Aesthetics and Political Resistance; Marx, Marxism, and Race; Foucault: Genealogy and Power; and Social and Political Philosophy. The Phoenix spoke to Professor Ahmed about her career, publications, and life experiences.

Sophia Vesely: What field of philosophy do you study, and what inspired you to research and teach that field specifically?

Professor Sabeen Ahmed: I am a social and political philosopher. I started studying philosophy by reading “Plato’s Republic.” That was my introduction to philosophy, and I was really struck by how ancient Greek philosophy approaches politics as an almost kind of holistic cosmological project. Politics is not in any way separated from how we are as social creatures. Politics is tasked with ensuring that we can live together well and in a way that we all flourish. 

When I started studying philosophy in 2009, it was very different from the way people talk about politics as this instrumental way of getting individual desires to be enacted through the political process. Thinking about politics in a more holistic way is really what got me interested in studying philosophy as opposed to comparative government or political science.

I lived in Turkey for a year from 2014 to 2015, which was in the middle of the Syrian refugee crisis. Turkey was one of the main throughways for refugees coming from the Middle East and North Africa. I realized that the political categories that we use to make sense of politics in the U.S. do not capture the reality for people who are engaging with the United States as a state. All of the language that my friends, my students, and my colleagues were using was the language of empire. They emphasized the importance of thinking about politics and historical context, which got me to shift the way I think about social and political philosophy through the lens of power. I started graduate school right after I got back from Turkey. I encountered the works of Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and all sorts of European thinkers who are writing in the service of justice and against systems of domination that have been long established. They are critiquing the way that a lot of political philosophy works in the service of upholding the status quo. I found that to be very useful. I saw, in their works, the conceptual tools to think more expansively about politics in global context, in historical context, through the language of oppression and domination, through the language of structural violence. That was the first time I had the language to make sense of what was happening in the world.

SV: How did you find your way to Turkey in 2014?

SA: While I was an undergraduate student thinking about graduate school, I was an ancient and medieval philosopher. I wanted to study medieval Islamic philosophy. I wanted to deepen my study of medieval Islamic philosophy and trace a genealogy of medieval Islamic philosophy to Ottoman political thought. In 2009 and in 2010, the discourse in the United States was that — when the Arab Spring was happening — Turkey will be the new model of democracy for the Middle East. Of course, that did not happen, but Turkey does occupy a unique space in the Western political imaginary because of the Ottoman Empire. I was really curious about where the political philosophies that informed the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman system came from. That is why I started studying Turkish, and I spent a few summers there before spending the year there on a Fulbright Scholarship. Then, contemporary political events encouraged me to change my focus to something more contemporary.

SV: What research are you currently working on?

SA: I’m working to theorize a conceptual framework of empire that I believe is still sorely lacking in Anglo-American political philosophy – even in continental political philosophy. We think of empire as this historical entity, usually through the framework of imperialism as a historical project. We have an understanding of empire that is deeply tied to military expansion or occupation of foreign territory, and that is not what the core of empire is, as I understand it. I understand the core of empire to be a logic of power that is grounded in the making of difference and using those categories of difference to hierarchize the social sphere. This definition is so much more expansive than merely territorial occupation, military intervention, or the setting up of military bases, even if those are components of how empire functions. They are not themselves what empire is. I’m using thinkers like Foucault, Franz Fanon, Marx, Du Bois, Saidiya Hartman, and more contemporary women of color to think about empire in a more robust way, so we can talk about how contemporary issues of migration, ecological disaster, global patriarchy, and global white supremacy are all part of the logic of empire. The empire remains relevant for thinking about the present.

SV: When did you start this project?

SA: I have been thinking about these issues since 2015. I have been writing about empire and colonialism through the lens of power in a number of spaces already. I have not cohered them into one book-length theory yet, but I have been writing around the issue for about six years now.

SV: How did you find your way to Swarthmore?

SA: I found my way to Swarthmore, in part, through luck. The academic job market is more a matter of luck than anything. It’s not often up to us what positions are available and where they are available. But Swarthmore happened to have an opening in the philosophy department the year that I was on the market, and I have always wanted to come back to the East Coast. I am from central Virginia originally. I lived in Washington, D.C. for a while and I did my graduate studies in Nashville, TN. Location-wise, Swarthmore was ideal. I have also always wanted to be in a liberal arts setting. The work that I do is interdisciplinary. It is very humanistic. It has some social scientific dimensions to it, but the thought of being in conversation with other scholars who are thinking humanistically about politics and social issues, along with the caliber of students here – I always feel like I’m learning from my students as much as I am from my colleagues. For the kind of academic environment for somebody who is interested in the kinds of issues that I am interested in, Swathmore is really an ideal place to be.

SV: What has been your favorite course to teach at Swarthmore?

SA: Oh my gosh, I love teaching. To be fair, this is only my fourth semester, so I have only taught so many courses, but I had a really fun time teaching Marx, Marxism, and Race in the fall. I had not before taught a class that was centered around one thinker, and to have the space to really get into that thinker’s entire corpus was a real joy. I think it is one of the best ways to study philosophy. Because so many of you students encounter Marx and Marxist ideas in other disciplines, it was a real treat for students to be able to think through his ideas together. What is Marx doing? Why is he writing the way that he is? How do his views shift and transform over time? It is just a really special way to approach any kind of thinker.

SV: Do you have any specific memories that stand out from your classes and your experience teaching thus far?

SA: I am always struck by how much laughter there is in my classes. I love these spaces. I feel it is an indication that we are comfortable together. So rather than a single moment, it’s more of a vibe that I like. I love being able to cultivate my classroom space to where we can read difficult texts and sometimes talk about really difficult real world issues, relating the text to what’s happening in the present. And the present is very tragic. There is a lot of tragedy in the world right now, but to still be able to laugh together, as we read, and never in a malicious way, always in a kind of loving, sometimes ironic way. Those to me are some of my favorite moments and some of the most rewarding classroom moments.

SV: What advice do you have for any prospective students or first years who are just starting out at Swarthmore? 

SA: Try a little bit of everything, especially in a space like Swarthmore where there is so much amazing work being done across divisions and across departments. The most important thing to do is to lean into your curiosity because we don’t live in a world that prizes curiosity. To occupy a space like Swarthmore where we have the privilege of doing that – I think that makes Swarthmore especially unique and special. Take classes in departments you would never have considered and take classes on topics that don’t think have anything to do with your own life or lived experience. Hold on to your curiosity and indulge in it.

SV: What do you do in your free time?

SA: I’m a proud mama of a cat: a little orange demon. Any time that I get to spend with him at home is always a joy, but when he lets me off the hook and lets me indulge in my own hobbies, then I really love to paint. I really enjoy cooking, too. Anything that allows me to get my hands dirty in some way. I don’t have a green thumb, but I’m trying to cultivate one. It is really tough. I can take care of an animal, but I can’t take care of a cactus. It is a very humbling experience. But I enjoy anything that allows me to indulge in my senses and indulge in the fact that I’m an embodied being. I love tactile, sensual things, and so when I have the free time and I can indulge in those things, then I try to.

SV: One final question, what is the greatest pride of your career?

SA: I have done some publishing and I’ve co-edited a volume on refugees. I’ve given lots of talks at institutions. But I think the greatest pride of my career, so far, is being a professor here at Swarthmore. I love being in the classroom, and every day that I’m in the classroom is a reminder of how lucky and blessed I am. But it is also a reminder that I worked really hard to be here, and this is my hard work paying off. My reward is the ability to spend time with such smart students in conversation and in laughter.

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