As a political theorist, Joan Cocks is interested in clashing conceptions of the good life and the ideal society, including the ways people understand and fight over the meaning of freedom, power, equality, nationality, justice, and property. Over the course of her career, she has focused on the role of ideas in the political struggles of women, ethnic minorities, colonized peoples, and other subordinated or marginalized groups, often looking at those struggles through the eyes of insightful political thinkers.
Cocks’ new book, On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, November 2014), reveals the seductive promise and danger to self and others of sovereign freedom as a political ideal. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s provocative claim that true freedom requires not the embrace but the repudiation of sovereign power, Cocks shows how and why sovereign freedom and domination are inextricably linked. She illustrates that theoretical point with two case studies: the first of the erasure of Indian life worlds by the founding of a free United States, and the second of the emancipatory impetus to—and damaging effects of—the Jewish search for sovereign freedom in Palestine. The book concludes with general meditations on sovereign freedom, highlighting the ecological ramifications of the dream of human beings as sovereign masters of the earth.
Cocks’ last book, Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), tackled conundrums of collective identity and ethno-national conflict by investigating the ambiguous stances towards nationalism of Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Said, and other 20th-century intellectuals. Cocks is also author of The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique, and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013), for which she received a research award from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Cocks has published numerous articles and symposium contributions on national identity, sovereignty, Marxism, feminism, modern political thought, and, most recently, "The Death of Politics as a Liberal Art?" (Polity 2013).
Winner of Mount Holyoke College's first Faculty Prize for Teaching in 2000, Cocks has always been attuned to students' needs. When she encountered international students who were struggling with their cultural identities, she developed a course in Cultural Politics, shaping it with the help of the students who inspired it. In the 1980s, she noticed students jumping from discipline to discipline to find courses in theory, and she established Mount Holyoke's interdisciplinary program in critical social thought, which allows students to combine traditions of philosophical inquiry as they engage with thematic questions of their own design. "It is time-consuming but extremely pleasurable," says Cocks of the intense advising the individualized program requires. "I find the conversations with students fascinating."
In the course of her tenure at the College, Cocks has served as chair of the Politics Department and founding Chair of the Program in Critical Social Thought, president of the MHC chapter of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), founding chair of the Mellon-funded thematic minor on comparative empires, and participant in a number of faculty seminars and member of many elected and appointed committees. She is currently a faculty fellow with the Disappearance Project at the Smith College Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, where she is working on a new article on the erasure of familiar life worlds by capital as global sovereign.