It is with profound sadness that we report the death of Enhancing Life Scholar Pamela Sue Anderson, on Sunday, March 12, 2017. Pamela struggled with cancer for over two years, but she pursued her life and her work with determination and care to the very end. Pamela brought an immense intelligence and a kind spirit to the meetings of The Enhancing Life Project. She was also a forceful spokeswoman for the Project and our shared work. Most importantly, she was an engaging and insightful colleague to all of us and, to some of us, was a beloved friend. She will be greatly missed, even as her work will continue to inform our collective efforts.
Regent’s Park College at the University of Oxford, where Pamela was a Professor of Modern European Philosophy and a Fellow in Philosophy, sent the following email to students and faculty on Monday:
It is with much sadness that we inform you of the death yesterday of Professor Pamela Sue Anderson, Fellow and Director of Studies for Philosophy. As you may have been aware, Professor Anderson was diagnosed with cancer in February 2015 and had received various programmes of treatment in the intervening two years. Despite the debilitating effects of both the illness and the treatments, Professor Anderson continued to teach as and when she was able, to work with colleagues to ensure the provision of the best teaching possible for her students, and to pursue her own research, particularly with the John Templeton Foundation Advanced Career Scholarship on the ‘Enhancing Life’ Project based at the University of Chicago.
Professor Anderson was an exceptional colleague and friend. Throughout her career she showed complete dedication to her students and to her research and was an integral part of the community at Regent’s. She will be hugely missed by colleagues, students and friends within Oxford and the wider academic world.
Her three siblings have been frequent visitors from the States in the last few months giving her care and support, and two of them were with her when she died.
A studentship will be established in her name and the family requests that donations are made to it in her memory, rather than sending flowers.
Details of memorial services and instructions for donations to Pamela’s endowed studentship are available here:
In her research for The Enhancing Life Project, Pamela’s goal was to offer a new philosophical conceptual scheme centered around enhancing life as a kind of continual becoming. We must be open to both suffering and joy, she argued, in order to conceive of our lives as a process of creative transformation.
In February of 2016, Pamela talked with us for a Q&A about her work with The Enhancing Life Project. We include the transcript of that Q&A in order to showcase Pamela’s deep thoughtfulness, empathy, and intellect.
What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project?
The spark was really just the word “life.” And that may sound silly, but here’s why. I have spent the past twenty years trying to carve out a field called feminist philosophy of religion, and one of the big themes is that women or feminists face a dichotomy: life is opposed to philosophy, like vulnerability is to invulnerability. The logic is that women are associated with caring for life, so feminist philosophy of religion would be life-giving, whereas the philosophy of religion pursued by men has been abstract and detached from life. So I wanted to explore the idea of life more. I thought that rather than shutting out our feelings and affections in life, philosophy should become transformed as life-giving.
But I was also interested by the idea of “enhancing.” Often human enhancement is equated with biological enhancement, and that’s precisely what I’m not interested in. Recently biomedical enhancing hasn’t seemed to be about nature or human life, but rather about the superhuman or trans-human: about creating someone who’s invulnerable. And instead, I want to explore the idea of vulnerability. That’s a feminist interest because vulnerability as negative is associated with women, but I’d like to turn that into a positive. I think facing vulnerability in mutual affection allows for a richer life.
So what does “enhancing life” mean for you?
I see enhancing life as a process. It’s not static. Change is constantly happening. You might become undone by loss, but you have to keep going. Enhancing life should be creative, and give confidence—it’s about striving. And striving is itself a kind of vulnerability, because you’re open to and reaching for something that isn’t there yet. You’re letting go of the notion that you can control everything in your life, or that you should. I don’t want to say that this corporeal vulnerability is entirely positive, or that it’s good to be ill or bereaved, but you’re not really living your life if you don’t cry and feel emotions like grief. But it also feels great to find new ways to be joyful and sing.
What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?
Traditional philosophy is largely abstract and purely rational. In a sense, it’s all about becoming invulnerable. And ironically, I think when you attempt this invulnerability, you actually open yourself to being vulnerable in the future because you don’t know how to cope when loss or illness happens. So I would like to open up the discipline to think more about what we can do to embrace the role of feelings in a philosophical context: becoming open to affection would be key.
What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?
People associate vulnerability with something very, very negative—something to be rid of. In the business world, people talk about how you can overcome vulnerability and gain courage and confidence, and it shocked me that people are using some of the same terms I’m using, but arguing for an invulnerable self. The political world, the world of diplomatic relations—they’re all seeking ways to make everybody invulnerable, to protect us against terrorism, for instance. Instead, becoming vulnerable would encourage life-giving practices, in order to stop the perpetuation of violence, bombing, and the escalation of armed conflicts. Yet seeking invulnerability is probably even true of certain feminist movements right now.
Today in philosophy I see successful young women needing to be invulnerable, because they’re trying desperately to stay on top. But that isn’t the solution—to build a brick wall around you so that no one can shoot you down. The solution is for men to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities, and stop leaving their female partners to carry that burden. It’s emotional work, but the ideal would be a relationship of much more mutual openness in vulnerability. And I do want to suggest on a positive front that you can't have love, genuine love, without vulnerability. If we want to enhance our lives, there has to be a willingness to be vulnerable, with less fear and self-deception in our relationships.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I love to travel to Paris. I like the atmosphere, the architecture, the café culture, the brasseries and bookshops. It’s funny because it’s a romantic city for me but this is not because I go there with anyone—it’s because I’ve studied the writings of twentieth-century French philosophers. I suppose the romance is partially sharing the affection discovered in recalling their lives in Paris, too.
We include also Pamela’s Enhancing Life Project blog post on the topic of the transformative power of vulnerability—a topic that gains a painful, yet incredibly special resonance in light of her death.
By Pamela Sue Anderson
February 4, 2016
Last month, a 29-year old man shot a woman in a movie theatre in a suburb of Seattle when his concealed gun accidentally went off. He was carrying the weapon, he said, because of his fear of mass shootings. This strange logic generates an ending that is precisely the opposite of what was desired: rather than offering protection, his gun made the world less safe.
The man was striving for invulnerability. Like many US citizens today, he thought his vulnerability could be overcome with possession of a gun. But the data is very clear: the very presence of more and more guns continually increases the violence. Striving for invulnerability puts us at risk. And it misses the opportunity that vulnerability can offer.
In our contemporary global world, we tend to think of vulnerability as an openness to violence and death. I propose that vulnerability can also be a capability for openness to mutual affection. In her very first poem, written at the age of 14, the American poetess Sylvia Plath recognized that vulnerability is inherent to life: “I thought that I could not be hurt …Then suddenly my world turned gray, and darkness wiped aside my joy. A dull and aching void was left, where careless hands had reached out to destroy my silver web of happiness.” Vulnerability colours a deeply shared dimension of our lives together as human beings. Failing to recognize and accept this vulnerability can, ironically, leave us open to even greater hurt and loss. In my current research, I have hypothesized that vulnerability serves as a provocation for enhancing life by creating a space for transformation. It’s an opening for change, whether through loss or joy. It forces us, quite simply, to stop and think.
The idea that vulnerability can be seen as a positive is controversial, even in religious settings where one might expect a consistent embrace of the vulnerable. Yet for generations, Christian theologians have treated corporeal vulnerability as something both negatively associated with women as “fleshy bodies.” Just think of some denominations of the Christian Church, in which a woman wouldn’t be allowed to touch the host (as the body of Christ) because of her “unclean” flesh. We can also think of practices in Judaism like niddah, the actual separation of a woman from men whenever blood is coming from her womb (whether menstruation, childbirth or sexually transmitted disease). Women must then ritually immerse themselves in water (mikveh) to purify their flesh/body. In this way, traditional religious rituals have reduced women to—and excluded them because of—the wounds of their bodies. The word “vulnerable” derives from the Latin vulnerare, “to wound” and from vulnus, “a wound.” To generalize: religious men have thought women are vulnerable like an open wound; hence, their bodies risk defiling and spreading infection, if not becoming dangerously seductive. So when perceived as vulnerable—like a wound losing blood—women’s fleshy bodies aren’t allowed in certain places or parts of worship.
In contrast, my focus on vulnerability is on transformative experiences like critical illness, personal bereavement, or the birth of a child, when people have been able to discover not only their openness to possible harm or pain, but also an openness to change and growth. For instance, bereavement is rightly followed by a process of grief, but in becoming undone by the loss of a loved one, we are inevitably forced to change. Life can never be the same without that loved one, but the wound of loss makes us recognize the reality of one’s love in that vulnerability. This recognition gives us the strength to move forward. The hope would be, after recognizing one’s vulnerability, that one could live more openly and fully for oneself and others who are equally open.
Recent ritual practices of restorative justice have attempted to initiate a process that, if properly designed, would facilitate mutual openness between the one who has been seriously hurt and the one who has caused the serious pain. The hope is that this shared vulnerability might bring about ethical reparation. However, this reciprocal process of restoring justice assumes a relational striving to become what we are most “deeply.” Again, Plath expresses this: “How frail the human heart must be – a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing – a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.” Perhaps if, and when, corporeal vulnerability is recognised as a capability for openness to other people and to novel possibilities – like becoming transformed through a process like restorative justice - then we can discover it as (Plath’s) “crystal” through which we envision a joyful transformation of our lives.
The openness of corporeal vulnerability, which is like “a throbbing pulse” and “a trembling thing,” is deeply relational; and for this reason, it can involve a becoming in the sense of enhancing life relationally; here my concept would be "mutual affection." Thus, I recognise my ongoing challenge is to confront the restrictive—strictly negative—uses of "vulnerability." This concept tends to be understood in contemporary, social and political worlds as negative; it is “the hurt,” which Plath describes, but without the capacity to “sing.” Corporeal vulnerability has been referred to by Christian theologians as “the flesh” of the body which needs to be discarded and replaced with “the spiritual” body. As a result, those associated with the flesh—like fleshy female bodies, or the failing flesh of the injured, ill, and dying—are treated as less capable than those who are thought to have achieved invulnerability. My Enhancing Life project aims to challenge invulnerability as impossible or self-defeating and instead claim that vulnerability can become a desirable condition that ultimately enhances life.