Disability, Discourse, Demographics at the Pacific APA

I have copied below the response I gave yesterday in the symposium on Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability.


To increase the accessibility of this symposium and provide a context in which it can be situated, I’d like to begin my remarks by explaining why I wrote the book, offering a rationale for its structure, and outlining its central arguments. Then, I will address some of the questions and concerns about the book that my esteemed colleagues have raised in their respective commentaries. Since we’ve scheduled ample time for open discussion, I didn’t feel compelled to make this response comprehensive. Nor do I respond to Melinda’s remarks which she kindly expanded only the other day when Devonya withdrew from the symposium.

My motivation to write Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability derived in part from a combination of the following: the continued marginalization of critical work on disability in philosophy; the dismal career prospects available to disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability; the evident indifference of nondisabled philosophers to the pernicious ways that disabled people are used and abused in philosophical discourse; and the inertia of philosophers and philosophy associations about the distinct forms of institutionalized bias, hostility, and exclusion that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy, including the inertia of philosophy associations about their own inaccessibility.

Disabled philosophers make up about 1% of full-time philosophy faculty in Canada and only marginally better in the U.S., although, by most credible estimates, disabled people constitute about 20-25% of the general population of North America. At present, there is not a single disabled philosopher of disability employed full-time in a Canadian philosophy department. To date, furthermore, no tenure-track philosophy job posting has designated philosophy of disability as either an area of specialization or an area of competence, despite the fact that research and teaching in philosophy of disability has been done for decades. In the preface to my book, I argue that this omission is enabled by the performative character of the individualized and medicalized classifications of disability currently used in the leading philosophy job and research databases.

In addition to our lack of access to the economic benefits and institutional resources that adequate employment in philosophy provides, disabled philosophers continue to be largely excluded from conferences and workshops; publication; informal professional networks; websites, blogs, and podcasts; funded research projects; leadership positions in professional associations; prizes, grants, awards, and fellowships; endowed research chairs; advisory boards; editorial boards; and so on and so forth. I wanted to write a book that would at least document this grievous state of affairs and its structural supports and material effects, if not produce a book that would provoke change to ameliorate the situation.  

I also felt compelled to write Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability because I think that most of the work currently done in philosophy of disability is outdated and counterproductive; misjudges the political character of disability; lacks a coherent and developed account of power, what it is, how it operates, and why; and, thus, provides an inadequate account of what disability is, how it operates, and why.

It seems to me that philosophers of disability, including feminist philosophers of disability, too willingly accept the importance conferred upon the conceptual frameworks, theoretical questions, policy concerns, and general philosophical approaches that the philosophers whose positions they ostensibly write against have put into place and thus are too obediently preoccupied with these conceptions, questions, concerns, and philosophical approaches.

I want to move philosophy of disability out of, and away from, the set of conceptual paradigms, theoretical questions, and normative claims that mainstream philosophers have implicitly and explicitly prescribed for work on disability, paradigms, questions, and claims the alleged philosophical import of which philosophers of disability repeatedly reaffirm and re-entrench, including out of, and away from, the constraints of the opposition between justice and care in which a great deal of philosophy of disability remains virtually deadlocked.

Insofar as philosophers of disability, most of whom are white, have focused their attention almost exclusively on conceptual questions, theoretical approaches, and a normative agenda that their predominantly nondisabled and white mainstream philosophy interlocutors have essentially determined and, moreover, inasmuch as philosophers of disability have primarily confined their normative analyses to the debate between justice and care that these interlocutors initiated in the first place, examination of the metaphysical and epistemological status of disability has been neglected; naturalization of disability in philosophy has expanded in new directions; the historical emergence of disability and its contingency have remained obscured; the constitutive forms of power that Foucault identified have been disregarded; denial persists about how certain ontological and ethical commitments condition accessibility to the profession; and the ways that disability is intertwined with other apparatuses of power, including settler colonialism, white supremacy, class, and environmental racism have been almost entirely ignored.

I wanted my book to prod philosophers out of their complacency with respect to disability; to undermine their intransigent belief according to which disability is fundamentally natural rather than artifactual; and to offer a new way in which to understand disability in political terms, an understanding that would more adequately take account of disability’s production and collusion by, through, and with racialized, gendered, and otherwise stratified and stratifying forms of social power.

I advance the arguments of the book within two distinct but interrelated spheres of analysis. In the reconstructive-conceptual sphere, I critically assess theories and models that variously construe disability as a prediscursive, transhistorical, and transcultural human characteristic, difference, or attribute and put forward an alternative understanding of disability as an apparatus of power through which everyone is constituted and in which everyone occupies a position, an understanding inspired primarily by Foucault. In the metaphilosophical sphere, I identify mechanisms and tactics that produce both the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession and the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability from the discipline.

One reviewer of the proposal for the book wrote that insofar as I wanted to develop both these lines of argument, I aimed, unrealistically, to do too much, that I had in effect proposed two separate and distinct books. The reviewer thus recommended that I confine the focus of the book in question to the sort of conceptual work on impairment and disability that I developed in my article, “On the Government of Disability.” I resisted this recommendation because, at the time, I suspected that the two spheres are mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing.

The task that I set out for myself, therefore, was to articulate a compelling argument in the book that would demonstrate a causal relation between the conception of disability that predominates in the discipline of philosophy and the demographics of the profession of philosophy; that is, I aimed to articulate an argument that would demonstrate that the medicalizing, deficit conception of disability that prevails in philosophy, according to which disability is a prediscursive disadvantage and hence a philosophically uninteresting fact of the matter, facilitates and sustains the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in fulltime faculty positions, while the continued lack of disabled faculty in the profession simultaneously ensures the persistence of this state of affairs.

Throughout the book, I argue that the metaphysical and epistemological status of disability remain largely naturalized in philosophy, including in feminist philosophy. My aim in the reconstructive-conceptual sphere, therefore, was two-fold: first, to identify and unravel the philosophical assumptions that enable the problematization and subsequent naturalization and materialization of impairment and disability in philosophy; and second, to expand my antifoundationalist, historicist, and relativist conception of disability as an apparatus of power in which everyone is entangled and entwined. A guiding assumption of the book is that Foucault’s work offers the most sophisticated and most philosophically and politically astute tools with which to denaturalize and debiologize disability in these ways.

Over the course of chapters one to four in particular, I historicize and relativize the categories of impairment and disability by drawing on Foucault’s insights about biopower, apparatuses, and normalization; Ladelle McWhorter’s genealogy of racism and sexual oppression; Dorothy Roberts’s work to debiologize social categories; Jesse’s claims about historical contingency and relativism; David Wong’s remarks about how philosophers underestimate the critical potential of relativism; and Ian Hacking’s arguments about styles of reasoning, kinds, and the classification of normality.  

I historicize and relativize the categories of impairment and disability in part by historicizing and relativizing the category of the normal, arguing that when the category of the normal is historicized and relativized, any category—such as disability—whose identity is established through identification of and departure from the normal must itself be recognized as historically contingent and relative.

When I decided to write Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I surmised that the book would receive considerable criticism from nondisabled feminist philosophers or be entirely ignored by them. For even feminist philosophers who use Foucault’s work themselves have recapitulated criticisms according to which Foucault assumed and reproduced androcentric, sexist, and masculinist biases, as well as condoned sexual abuse of women and girls. In chapter four, I aim to show that feminist philosophers who criticize Foucault in these ways both disregard the substance of his remarks about women in the first volume of the history of sexuality series and substantially misunderstand his studies of abnormality.

The fifth chapter is a sustained critique of the subfield of bioethics in which I argue that bioethics is a technology of government, the exercise of which shields the profession of philosophy from the incursion of disabled philosophers and typifies the intentional, nonsubjective, and conciliatory character of neoliberal forms of power; that is, bioethics is a neoliberal technology of normalization whose objectives are accomplished in part through the production of autonomous and free subjects. The chapter thus further substantiates the metaphilosophical sphere of the book, as well as supports a claim that I advance in the reconstructive-conceptual sphere throughout the book, namely, that neoliberal governmentality enables subjects to act in order to constrain them.

The argument of chapter five is distinct from the criticisms that other philosophers of disability pose to bioethicists insofar as my critique encompasses neoliberal Western bioethics as a concerted enterprise, troubling some of its central principles, including autonomy, choice, risk, and informed consent.

In other words, my critique of bioethics is not first and foremost designed to discredit a particular bioethicist’s arguments, or a certain clinical practice, a specific application of a particular ethical theory, or a given normative approach to bioethics. Indeed, I contend that such critiques inadvertently prop up and legitimize the ableist and racist motivations of the subfield of bioethics unless embedded in a more encompassing critique of bioethics as a strategic form of government, that is, an intentional, nonsubjective, and conciliatory mechanism of neoliberalism.

Both Jesse and Chloë have raised concerns about the status and character of the subject in Foucault’s work and whether the absence from his writing of first-person narratives and perspectives limits the appropriateness and effectiveness of his analyses for feminist philosophy of disability. Chloë has suggested that the new materialism both corrects Foucault’s disregard of the subject’s materiality and experience of it and rectifies my own confusion about these phenomena. Jesse worries that Foucault does not attend to the motives and intentions of the subject.

Does Foucault deny the subject and its agency? Does Foucault discount the epistemic value of personal experiences, including experiences of embodiment, experiences such as pain? Should first-person narratives be regarded as an essential aspect of, that is, a necessary condition for, effective feminist philosophy of disability? These sorts of concerns and questions about the subject in Foucault and the role of experience in his work are addressed in chapter 3 and elsewhere in the book.

For years, such concerns and questions have surrounded feminist and other philosophers and theorists of disability who draw on Foucault. Numerous disability studies scholars—including Tobin Siebers, Jackie Leach Scully, Kevin Paterson, and Bill Hughes, with all of whose claims I engage in chapter 3—have been either overtly hostile to Foucault’s work or very skeptical about its suitability as a discourse with which to provide an account of disabled people’s lives. Even now, some disability studies scholars remain unconvinced about the usefulness of Foucault for analyses of disability.

The general charges that disability studies scholars have directed at Foucault can be summed up thus: because Foucault disregards personal experiences, denies the foundational subject and its agency, as well as obscures the body, his work is inappropriate for disability theory and philosophy of disability that ought to attend to the lived experiences and knowledges of disabled people, including their experiences and knowledges of their own embodiment. Feminist philosophers have expressed similar concerns about Foucault’s work.

Despite the prevalence of these criticisms of Foucault in disability theory and in feminist philosophy, the criticisms have never seemed compelling to me. Indeed, I maintain that Foucault does not abandon the subject and its experiences; rather, Foucault was concerned to show that the subject and its experiences cannot be dissociated from the historically contingent practices that constitute the subject by and through its experiences; hence, my discussions in chapters 1, 2, and 3 of (for instance) the emergence of kinds of people, the constitutive character of the examination, the historicity and cultural specificity of experience, including the experience of aesthetic values and pain, as well as my use of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s insight that identity is a practice, not a thing.

In this regard, Foucault did not eliminate the materiality of the body; rather, Foucault was concerned to show that “the body” cannot be dissociated from the historically contingent and culturally specific practices that bring it into being, that is, bring it into being as that kind of thing: as impaired, as racialized, as material, as mechanical, as gendered, sexed, and so on. Furthermore, as I indicate at various places in the book with respect to neoliberalism and in chapter 5 especially, Foucault was concerned to show that the subject’s intentions and motives are by-products of apparatuses of modern power which themselves are intentional and nonsubjective.

In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault explained his approach to the subject, its materiality, and its psychology in this way:

We believe that feelings are immutable, but every sentiment, particularly the noblest and most disinterested, has a history. We believe in the dull constancy of instinctual life and imagine that it continues to exert its force indiscriminately in the present as it did in the past … We believe, in any event, that the body obeys the exclusive laws of physiology and that it escapes the influence of history, but this too is false. (Foucault 1977, 153)

I offer a personal anecdote in the preface to Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and use first-person pronouns to introduce my claims throughout the book; however, I don’t articulate autobiographical narratives over the course of the book in order to advance these claims. Does the absence of personal narrative in my book render its analyses ineffective and incomplete? Should it thus be said that I deny subjectivity and agency as general categories in the book and my own subjectivity and agency in particular? Am I denying my subjective experiences of, say, ableism, because I don’t elaborate them throughout the book?

I want to argue, to the contrary, that I am doing what Foucault did, namely, critical genealogical analyses that my subjective experiences have motivated. “Each of my works is a part of my own biography,” Foucault stated in an interview that appears under the title “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault” (1988, 11). In another interview, Foucault remarked, “I haven’t written a single book that was not inspired, at least in part, by a direct personal experience” (2000, 244). In yet another interview, Foucault, himself a disabled philosopher, explained the impetus for his writing in this way: “Whenever I have tried to carry out a piece of theoretical work, it has been on the basis of my own experience, always in relation to processes I saw taking place around me. It is because I thought I could recognize in the things I saw, in the institutions with which I dealt, in my relations with others, cracks, silent shocks, malfunctionings…that I understand a particular piece of work, a few fragments of autobiography” (1990, 156). In Foucault’s writings, and in my own, subjective experience is generative of authorial practices, of autobiography, although these articulations may at times seem somewhat aloof, indifferent, and detached.

In fact, my own authorial practices are neither haphazard nor unconsidered. Rather, I am pushing back against the popular demand for disabled people to elaborate more first-person accounts that will inevitably lead only to more uncritical cataloguing of our allegedly prediscursive personal experiences, subjective impressions, and individual embodiment, first-person accounts that will likely be used to bolster depoliticized ableist tropes according to which the appropriate response in the presence of a disabled person is either pity or inspiration and the key to material, economic, and social success for disabled people is to overcome their natural deficits and put on a smile.

Indeed, I want the voyeuristic, ableist philosophical gaze to be critically redirected. That is, I want nondisabled philosophers to begin to think seriously and methodically about their own relation to the apparatus of disability, including how they enable its reproduction and expansion in philosophy because they benefit from doing so, how they can contribute to a systemic insurrection against institutionalized ableism throughout philosophy, the academy, and society at large, and how they can make restitution to disabled people whom they have systematically, incrementally, and instrumentally subordinated.

Much of Foucault’s work comprises significant attempts to challenge the self-evidence of assumptions about disability by persuasively exposing the historical specificity and contingent character of normality and its cognates abnormality and pathological. Foucault’s inquiries into the problematization of abnormality, perversion, and madness (among other things) were ground-breaking, suggesting a host of avenues of investigation along which future feminist philosophy of disability could proceed. Thus, both the feminist dismissal of Foucault’s work and refusal to genuinely engage with the writing of feminist philosophers of disability who use it impose conceptual and discursive limits on feminist philosophy of disability and reinforce the continued marginalization of critical work on disability within the field of feminist philosophy itself, ultimately disadvantaging disabled feminist philosophers.

Foucault’s examination of the case of Charles Jouy and my presentation of it offer feminist philosophers of disability additional means with which to decentre mainstream feminist analyses of sexual violence, analyses that largely continue to position nondisabled white women and girls as the paradigmatic victims of sexual infractions. The conditions of possibility for this positioning of nondisabled white women and girls as the exemplary targets of sexual violence include the utter disregard for the rampant sexual abuse of disabled people (however gendered) and a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the rape and other forms of sexual violence that both white women and men have historically perpetrated against black women and men, black girls and boys, as Hazel Carby (1987), Tommy Curry (2017), Nora Berenstain (2018), and others have evocatively argued.

At the outset of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I state that the book is a call for a conceptual revolution. The conceptual revolution that the book is designed to incite involves scrutiny of the constitution of the disabled subject in philosophy and beyond rather than uncritical preoccupation with a phenomenology of the ostensibly prediscursive subject of disability.

This shift in focus from a phenomenology of the allegedly unfettered subject of disability to interrogation of the constitution of the disabled subject in philosophy and beyond would be an outcome of the epistemological shift away from a conception of disability that construes it as a transhistorical and transcultural personal property, difference, or attribute to a conception of disability that construes it as a historically and culturally specific apparatus of force relations in which everyone is implicated and positioned.

Another outcome of this epistemological shift away from ahistorical individualized understandings of disability would be transition away from accommodationist approaches to inclusion of disabled people toward universal design approaches, that is, transition away from accommodation toward accessibility.

This epistemological shift would, furthermore, move philosophical analysis of disability out of and away from the subfield of bioethics in which it has for the most part been sequestered and incorporate it into the realm of biopolitics, enabling (among other things) a more complex inquiry into the ways in which the apparatus of disability is intertwined with and mutually constitutive of apparatuses of racializing, gendering, and other stratifying forms of social power. Examples of this transmigration that I propose in chapter 5 include movement away from claims that take the impaired embryo and fetus as natural kinds to thick descriptions of the administrative, medical, scientific, and discursive constitution of impairment by and through prenatal testing, embryonic stem cell research, public policy, and other technologies of normalization.

Notice, then, that the antifoundationalism that motivates this epistemological shift provides ways for my historicist and relativist feminist philosophy of disability to instigate intellectual and other social change. For the emergence and articulation of new accounts of how given phenomena are socially constituted, in addition to identification of the given phenomena as socially constituted in the first place, can themselves be acts of resistance that propel transformation of linguistic, material, and concrete practices. I submit, therefore, that Foucault’s techniques of historicism and genealogical method are two, but only two, of the gifts that he bequeathed to this form of resistance.

I’d like to thank all of you for your interest in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. I greatly appreciate your attendance and participation in this session and look forward to your comments and questions in the time remaining.


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