Some Things to Consider About Disability and Diversity in Philosophy

As readers and listeners of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability know, in the book’s fourth chapter I examine criticisms that feminist philosophers and theorists have directed at Foucault according to which his claims rely upon and reproduce androcentric, sexist, and masculinist biases. In a post at Discrimination and Disadvantage, I summarized remarks that I make in the book in response to the general claim that Foucault omits consideration of gender and asymmetrical gendered relations of power from his work on the history of sexuality in particular, pointing to Foucault’s identification in the final chapter of History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 (HoS1) of “the hysterization of women’s bodies” as  one of the “four great strategic unities which, beginning in the eighteenth century, formed specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex” (103, 146). In other words, for Foucault, the hysterization of women (and their bodies), that is, their gendering was integral to the constitution, emergence, and circulation of the category of sex.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the fourth chapter zeros in on feminist criticisms of Foucault’s use of the case of Charles Jouy in HoS1 and the Abnormal lectures of 1974-1975, that is, concentrates on the veritable outrage that a number of feminist philosophers and theorists have expressed about Foucault’s “flippant” stance on the rape and sexual assault of women and girls, exemplified in his treatment of the Jouy case.

As I indicated in a recent post, I have articulated very different understandings of the Jouy case and Foucault’s treatment of it, understandings introduced in a 2013 article in Hypatia entitled “Educating Jouy.” In the 2013 article, I argued (convincingly, I think) that Foucault’s use of the Jouy case was a pathbreaking examination of the coalescence and institution of the idea of abnormality in a particular sociohistorical moment.  Needless to say, the argument went against the tide of feminist criticism of Foucault’s use of the case. In fact, my choice of Hypatia as the venue in which to publish the article was strategic: most of the critiques that feminist philosophers have elaborated of Foucault’s use and treatment of the case of Jouy have been published in Hypatia.

In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I expanded my response to these feminist critiques by (to my own satisfaction at least) refuting the claim that Foucault’s use of the case evinced a masculinist indifference to the sexual abuse and rape of women and girls. Furthermore, I suggested four factors that, in my view, comprise conditions of possibility for the sustained circulation of the feminist critiques of Foucault’s use and treatment of the Jouy case, that is, conditions of possibility that have enabled these feminist critiques to go unchallenged until I published the 2013 article in which I disputed them. These four factors, I argue in the book, have combined to produce discussion of the case in both feminist philosophy and Foucault scholarship as a local centre of the apparatus of disability through which impairment has been constituted. Let me quote at length my identification and description of the four factors, which are:

First, and perhaps most evidently, even feminists who have done a great deal of work on the ways that gender variously colludes and intersects with race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality (among other apparatuses) can succumb to ahistorical and universalistic assumptions about gendered power relations. In this instance, these sorts of assumptions precluded examination of the ways that the constitution and materialization of impairment through the apparatus of disability occurred amid and even propel certain historically and culturally specific social, juridical, and medical events of the past that have contributed to the shape of discriminatory personal and public perceptions of and beliefs about disabled populations in the present. The AFI is, in short, another example of feminist analysis that unquestioningly and uncritically assumes that male supremacy and sexism are the predominant (if not sole) forms of power operative in social interactions and exchanges between women/girls and men/boys, and does so by concealing the complicated character of power relations, that is, obscuring apparatuses of power with which (binary) gender has historically colluded and been entwined, leaving these networks of power unexamined and enabling them to persist, reconfigure, intensify, and expand.

Second, there is a persistent lack of knowledge and understanding about disabled people, their lives, histories, and social subjection in feminist philosophical circles and in philosophy more broadly, in part because disabled feminist philosophers and specialists in (feminist) philosophy of disability remain scandalously underrepresented in the profession of philosophy. If, for example, enough feminist philosophers and Foucault scholars had read the work of (feminist) philosophers and theorists of disability and thus knew that, contrary to pervasive and harmful stereotypes, disabled people are the victims of sexual abuse and other violence at the hands of nondisabled people many times more often than the other way around, the momentum that discussion of the Jouy case has gained in feminist philosophy, over the last decade especially, might never have developed nor indeed have accelerated. Furthermore, if more feminist philosophers (and Foucault scholars) read the work of philosophers of disability and disability theorists and thus were familiar with the genealogies of cognitive impairment and the apparatus of disability, they likely would have recognized the product of the scientific and medical examinations that Jouy was forced to endure—namely, imbecility—rather than have dismissed the attention that Foucault paid to these medical and scientific examinations as apologia for Jouy’s actions and for the sexual victimization of women and girls in both the past and the present.

Third, many nondisabled feminist philosophers seem to assume that, given their own relationship with and experiences of oppression, they possess the requisite knowledge to understand (or are poised to understand) ableism and disability in ways that would enable them to adjudicate when the phenomena that these forms of power produce are pertinent to a situation or state of affairs, how much significance these phenomena should be given, and under what circumstances these phenomena are insignificant. Too often, nondisabled philosophers situate themselves as “experts” who can determine what gets said about disability and ableism, how much gets said, who gets to say it, in what form it will be said, and whether to engage with what is said—and they occupy the discursive, institutional, and professional spaces to ensure that they can make these determinations (see Tremain 2013b). Yet, few nondisabled philosophers seem to know what ableism is, nor do they seem to reflect upon how their own theoretical, interpersonal, professional, and other practices recapitulate it, confirming their privileged social position vis-à-vis disabled people and reinforcing the naturalizing impulses of the apparatus of disability.

A fourth factor that has enabled the epistemological domination that heretofore has compelled feminist philosophical discussion of the Jouy case is the continued production in feminist philosophy of disabled people as the individual bearers of a politically neutral form of bad luck (recall Fricker) rather than as disadvantageously subjected to the apparatus of disability; that is, the continued refusal on the part of philosophers to conceive of disabled people as the subjects of a complicated and complex configuration of power that is inseparable from other apparatuses of subjecting power rather than as recipients of a prediscursive form of personal misfortune and thus the quintessential subjects of care. I doubt very much that the feminist philosophical community would uncritically engage in the sort of unreflective, concerted vilification of a member of any other oppressed social group the way that it has done with the disabled man named Charles Jouy. I hope that my genealogical treatment of the Jouy case in this chapter (and indeed that this book in its entirety) serves as a beacon to the feminist philosophical community, a beacon that inspires at least one feminist philosopher to challenge the ableism of the subfield of feminist philosophy and of the discipline and profession of philosophy in general.

Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, 155-157.

Despite the epistemology of domination that nondisabled feminist philosophers have wielded with respect to interpretations of Foucault’s work on the Jouy case and the grievous misunderstandings about (for instance) the allegedly dangerous nature of disabled people, various forms of abuse of disabled people, and the medicalization of disability that the hegemony of these interpretations has proliferated, no feminist (or other) philosopher has circulated a petition that called for retraction of any of the earlier Hypatia articles about the Jouy case; (as far as I know) no editorial board member of the journal has resigned due to their publication; and (and far as I can see) no mention was made of this dreadful episode in the publication history of Hypatia in the recently circulated “Just Ideas?” or any other document on publication ethics that I have seen thus far.

How can this be so? Answers to this question are, I would argue, suggested in the aforementioned four factors. Indeed, I submit that these four factors (among others) could be directed at virtually every other high-profile funded project on diversity currently underway in the profession of philosophy, projects on diversity the coordination of which is the jurisdiction and responsibility of (nondisabled) philosophers who seem largely uninformed about the apparatus of disability; assume that they need no specialist knowledge about disability and ableism in order to make general claims about diversity that purportedly encompass disability; and exclude disabled philosophers and analysis and critique of disability from integration into virtually every aspect of their projects in any consequential way.

But who am I to say so?

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