Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Lissa Skitolsky

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-second installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Lissa Skitolsky. Lissa is the 2019-2020 Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at Dalhousie University. Her research in the fields of genocide studies and Continental philosophy focuses on the connection between discourse and sensibility in the normalization of state-sanctioned, systemic violence against racialized and gendered groups, drawing on the disciplines of critical race theory, aesthetics, and psychoanalytic theory to explain how this process of normalization works to obscure the violent nature of this violence. Lissa Skitolsky’s work also “identifies discursive and non-discursive strategies of resistance against the moral indifference and willful ignorance central to the repetition of state violence.” Her forthcoming manuscript entitled .Hip-Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness?, concerns the importance of underground hip-hop culture as a form of wisdom and political praxis.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Lissa! You did a fascinating interview for the series in September 2017. At the time, you were finishing up your forthcoming book, Hip-Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness? Please give us an update on the book and tell us what else you have been doing and how you are in general.

Thank you so much, Shelley!  I’m honored to have the opportunity to talk with you again for Dialogues on Disability. Your interviews offer us spaces in which we can talk freely about our disabilities and their relation to our work; these interviews help me—and so many others in our field—approach our disabilities as philosophically significant rather than as simply impediments that we register with HR and keep to ourselves.

I’m happy to report that I finished the book, which is currently undergoing review before its publication in the Philosophy of Race series of Lexington Press. Although I’ve published journal articles and book chapters, this is my first book; it was a wild ride. Writing the last few chapters coincided with a new stage of processing my trauma through the psychotherapeutic practice of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which produced insights that became essential to the argument of the text. Even more, the insights that I discovered through EMDR allowed me to better appreciate hip-hop songs that I had listened to for 10 to 20 years, enhancing my analysis of certain songs.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity to work at Dalhousie this year and get a break from the toxic and lethal conditions of American life under the current regime. I’m excited about my project as the 2019-2020 Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies. The project involves an application to the Canadian context and, specifically, to the local context of Nova Scotia and the sensibility of anti-black violence against African Nova Scotians, of the research that I co-authored with Alfred Frankowski about the relation between our sensibility of genocide and our sensibility of anti-black violence.

Lissa, I was keen to invite you back to the series, in part, so that we could discuss the recently released Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which I posted about twice last month. As I noted in my initial post, after the release of the Report, much of the discussion in the mainstream media zeroed in on the fact that the Report identifies the situation with respect to the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people as a “genocide,” largely emphasizing the allegedly detrimental impact that this reference could have on both Canada’s international reputation and the normative weight of the term. As I read some of these news items, I recalled that in your interview, you had distinguished between different ways that the term genocide is delineated in policy instruments, theoretical work, etc. What are your thoughts on this debate that has followed the release of the Final Report of the National Inquiry?

What’s remarkable about the Final Report is that it refers to the systemic oppression and criminal neglect of Indigenous women and girls as a “genocide” as such, in contradistinction to the conclusion of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 that the residential school system had been a form of “cultural genocide.” Even more, the National Inquiry includes a statement that is sharply critical of the term cultural genocide and the way in which it has been used in the political discourse about Canada’s past and present policies that target the well-being and intergenerational ties of Indigenous peoples. As the Report states:

The National Inquiry believes that the debate around “cultural genocide” versus “real” genocide is misleading, at least in the Canadian context. Of course, the “anomaly” resides in the fact that Indigenous peoples have to work with norms of international law decided by “sovereign states” who willfully excluded their perspectives to serve their own interests. Be that as it may, the National Inquiry is of the opinion that the definition of genocide in international law, as it stands, encompasses the past and current actions and omissions of Canada towards Indigenous Peoples. (7)

I am so impressed that the Final Report draws attention to the political mis-use of the term cultural genocide in the Canadian context where that term is wielded to distinguish the political aim of destroying a culture from the political aim of “genocide proper.” It’s important to remember that genocide is not akin to mass murder, but instead defined by the U.N. Convention and international law as the effort to “destroy” a population through a system of violence that attacks the social vitality of an entire community.  For this reason, the term cultural genocide is redundant and incoherent, given the aim of genocide to destroy entire communities through attacking the social, cultural, and intergenerational ties of its members. Even more—as suggested by the Report—the term serves to minimize the harms inflicted through the residential schools as somehow “less than” fully genocidal. I am also really impressed that the Final Report of the National Inquiry mentions the epistemic and political problem of characterizing the harms inflicted against Indigenous groups in Eurocentric terms based on norms of international law that were explicitly formed to exclude the testimony and perspective of these groups. 

My concerns about the Final Report regard its authority and the response of the government to its conclusions and recommendations, as well as whether these recommendations will actually be implemented and the means of their implementation. I guess my larger concern is that the Report itself will take the place of changing and creating policies meant to address and arrest the genocidal violence against Indigenous women and girls or will lead only to the creation of new commissions and new inquiries that, ultimately, do not lead to structural change. I have an equally pressing concern that the specific focus on the genocidal violence against Indigenous women and girls will serve to defer the problem of systemic violence inflicted against Indigenous peoples as such.

I am not Canadian, however, and have not researched the Canadian history of violence against Indigenous peoples; so, I am wary of offering my opinion. I am excited to learn more during my appointment at Dalhousie this year, and I would recommend that anyone who is interested in reading or listening to scholarship about Canadian genocide against Indigenous peoples should consult the work of my friend and colleague, Dr. Dorota Glowacka, Professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She has presented research on the Canadian genocide of Indigenous groups at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and currently serves on the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

As I stated in your bio at the outset and as you have now noted, you are doing a year-long residency at Dalhousie as the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies. Please tell us about the Chair and your projected research for this residency.

My project this year is titled “Canadian Discourse and Sensibility About the Holocaust, Cultural Genocide, and Anti-Black Bias Against African Nova Scotians” and is concerned with the larger implications of the aforementioned distinction between “genocide” and “cultural genocide” for the Canadian sensibility of systemic violence against marginalized groups. In particular, I will be focusing on how this distinction affects the local sensibility of anti-black bias against African Nova Scotians. This project is guided by the question: Does the distinction between genocide and cultural genocide allow for a certain dis-articulation of systemic anti-black bias against African Nova Scotians in Canadian sensibility?

[Description of photo below: Lissa sits behind a table at The Matter of Black Lives: Black History and Experiences in the United States and the Question of Genocide, a conference in Stockholm. Her co-author, Alfred Frankowski, sits to her left. Lissa is engaging with her audience. Both of her hands are raised in front of her and she is speaking intently.]

For the past several years, my research has examined how our discourse about genocide affects our sensibility about patterns of anti-black violence in the United States. I have also proposed discursive and non-discursive strategies of resistance against the moral indifference and willful ignorance about anti-black violence in the present that so often accompanies the white sensibility of race and racism. My comparative studies on the relation between anti-black sensibility in the United States and anti-semitic sensibility in Nazi Germany indicate that our ability to integrate the everyday administration of state violence such that we cannot imagine, see, or think of it as violence depends upon the discursive dis-articulation of the systemic and traumatic infliction of violence against racialized groups as such as rather so many particular, occasional, and tragic accidents against individuals.   

My research at Dalhousie will examine whether there is a similar dilemma in Canadian culture with regard to the political sensibility of genocide and the sensibility of anti-black bias against African Nova Scotians in Halifax. Specifically, I will examine whether the Canadian discourse about the Holocaust and its own “cultural genocide” in the past has influenced, shaped, or excluded the sensibility about systemic bias against the African Nova Scotian community in the present. This question and the comparative context is especially pertinent with regard to white Canadian sensibility about African Nova Scotians who trace their heritage back to Colonial America and represent their migration to Canada in terms of the effort to escape anti-black violence and American slavery.

From the information that you’ve given me, Lissa, I gather that an element of your residency project will involve artists and prisoner advocates in Halifax. Please describe this dimension of your project, its aims, methods, and purposes.

Yes, the project draws on the work of my colleagues at University of King’s College, Dorota Glowacka (whom I have already mentioned) and Sylvia D. Hamilton, the work of local activists, artists, and educators in Halifax who have collaborated with me over the past three years to organize events  sponsored by local universities, and the non-profit organizations iMOVe and Youth Art Connection.  I will also be teaching a course on philosophy and genocide in the Fall and Spring semesters, as well as presenting my work to the community.

My research on the relation between discourse and the normalization of genocidal violence has always been grounded in the testimony of individuals who are often “out of sight” and thus “out of mind” to academics—such as prisoners and underground rappers—who have suffered from and resisted state violence through discursive and non-discursive practices that oppose the logic of the dominant sensibility, or what Foucault referred to as the “episteme.In my view, the testimony of these individuals is essential in order to better examine how we misrepresent and dis-articulate the nature and severity of systemic harms inflicted against targeted groups; their testimony is a crucial source for what Foucault termed the “subjugated knowledges” that serve to pierce the totalizing force of the dominant discourse that colonizes both thought and sensibility.

My recent work examines how academic discourse serves to defer and dis-articulate the nature of anti-black genocidal violence. Given the limits of white sensibility and the dominant discourse, I don’t think the pursuit of critical theory in the academy can seal itself off from aesthetic interventions and aesthetic productions in black culture that act as counter narratives and affect the sensibility rather than simply appeal to the intellect. 

In my forthcoming book, I argue that as a form of poetic testimony, underground hip-hop can produce an aesthetic rupture in white sensibility that disrupts the ability to “make sense” of anti-black violence in post-racial or neoliberal terms that historicize and minimize the systemic, genocidal nature of this violence. This aesthetic rupture of sense-making opens a space in which to feel moral dread about anti-black state violence and the limits of one’s own sensibility. I argue that hip-hop culture has always provided a space and the means to feel anger and sorrow about the systemic destruction of black lives, and so a space that acts as the emotional register for the horror of the present, able to affect our sensibility about the American past, present, and future.

The importance of the aesthetic domain for political action has become all the more apparent in the political crisis of the American present, when we are (mis)led by the reckless and temperamental desires of a petulant white man who flaunts his disrespect for truth and facts in order to promote the racist and heterosexist commitments responsible for his own political and economic success. Akin to life in an authoritarian regime, it is no longer possible to appeal to facts or ideals in the political domain in order to shape and critique public policy. For this reason, political resistance also requires aesthetic interventions to shock our “common sense” and interrupt the ways that we “make sense” of the senseless horror unleashed by this dysfunctional, fascist administration. 

In my book, I argue that underground hip-hop serves as an essential aesthetic intervention against the lethal non-sense of the dominant political discourse; so, during my residency at Dalhousie, I will be working with hip-hop artists, as well as painters, actors, directors, and musicians in the local community. 

Have you developed your work on PTSD over the last year? If so, can you tell us about it?

Yes, the past year has been quite extraordinary in terms of my therapeutic experience treating my symptoms of PTSD after several years of practicing EMDR, a practice in which the client initiates a process of recollecting emotionally disturbing memories, while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus like light or sound. As I mentioned at the start of the interview, my research for my book coincided with my progress through the “processing” stage of EMDR, which led to critical insights about specific lines of inquiry in trauma theory and about the clinical approach to PTSD more generally. 

One of the most dominant lines of inquiry in trauma theory today is guided by a comparative analysis between how humans and nonhuman animals react to and cope with life-threatening situations. This paradigm for understanding trauma, in which we can learn better coping mechanisms for processing traumatic violence by observing how animals react to danger, assumes that the cause of PTSD lies in some evolutionary defect whereby we “lost” the supposedly “natural” process of coping with forms of life-threatening violence “similar” to those faced by animals. This focus is illustrated in a recent article by Luke Dittrich in The New York Times, “Primal Fear: Can Monkeys Help Unlock Trauma?” as well as in the creation of new therapies that claim to teach people how to “tremble through trauma,” just like a deer who is attacked for food or sex.

I’ve realized, however, that this approach to PTSD reflects the fact that we do not actually listen to the testimonies of people who have suffered from traumatic violence. If we did, we would not view traumatic violations as “natural” or “inevitable” and we would certainly not locate the “problem” of PTSD in the inability of victims to adequately “process” forms of violence that cannot be explained or adequately represented.

In my view, this entire discussion is based on a false analogy between animal and human life in order to defer critical attention away from the actual sources of traumatic violence and the contingent conditions that sustain a racist, heterosexist, ableist, and classist distribution of power and capital. The discussion is informed by the question: “Why don’t animals suffer from PTSD?” and so, will always lead us away from the questions that need to be asked in order to assess how and in what way the conditions of social and civic life create and in fact require a pathological arrangement of power relations that inflicts patterns of traumatic violence that undermine the social vitality of entire communities—whether or not every person subject to these conditions develops the symptoms of PTSD. 

In this way, the discussion about animals and trauma reflects something about “professional” discourse that hip-hop artists and critical race theorists have always sought to convey, suggesting that the way in which we talk about trauma in the terms of the dominant discourse—whether the dominant clinical or academic or popular discourse—only reinforces our moral indifference to and epistemological ignorance about the systemic and lethal harms inflicted on racialized and gendered groups as such.

PTSD is the only mental “disorder” that is unquestionably recognized as caused by experience rather than genetics. This fact—to quote Freud—“astonishes people far too little,” for it indicates that the disorder cannot be understood as an evolutionary defect. If we lose sight of this distinctive feature of PTSD, then we run the risk of viewing PTSD as a disorder caused by an individual’s weaknesses or genetic flaws rather than by social experiences to which no one should be subject.

Humans alone have the evolutionary tool of a highly developed form of abstract thought that allows us greater freedom over how and when to satisfy instincts, and so a tool to create a world in which we don’t attack each other for food and sex, or suffer abandonment and economic devastation in the aftermath of  disasters that are also caused by toxic—rather than natural—environmental conditions due to our reliance on fossil fuels. We don’t develop capacities to deal with incidents that are not natural, that need not occur, and the severity of the harm that provokes PTSD is related to the fact that we are able to say (unlike animals) that this experience  should NOT have occurred, given our enhanced ability to control and predict the terms of our existence. 

In this sense, the violation suffered by trauma is also a moral violation; animals don’t create a world of moral expectations. So, even if nonhuman animals did suffer from PTSD, it would not have the same logic or dynamic of PTSD in human life. Because we are meaning-making creatures, the remedy for PTSD will always require the ability to reinterpret traumatic experiences from the past that invade the present in the form of symptoms like flashbacks and misplaced rage—a deferred response to a traumatic event. 

In other words, even if we could tremble in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic violation, we could not heal ourselves without relying on some aspect of human culture to interpret and reinterpret the meaning of that violation: a distinctly human practice that combines sensory with intellectual stimulus to allow us the opportunity to re-experience past traumas in order to re-signify them from the position of having-survived them.

In the clinical treatment of PTSD, this re-experiencing and re-signification is done through EMDR. And in my forthcoming book, I argue that underground hip-hop culture has also served as a form of EMDR, or an essential means with which to confront, recall, reinterpret, and process past traumas suffered from our system of anti-black violence in order to better cope with and resist the ruthless repetition of traumatic violence still inflicted by the conditions that sustain what Charles Mills refers to as our “racial democracy.”

[Description of photo below: Lissa, who is smiling broadly and whose arms are folded across the front of her, stands at a podium at the Exploring Beauty and Truth in Worlds of Color: Race and Aesthetics conference. She is presenting her work on “Holocaust Humor and our Aesthetic Sensibility of American Genocide” with her research assistant Jared Ijams, who is also smiling widely and standing at another podium in the background of the shot.]

More generally, my therapeutic and academic work have led to me to emphasize that PTSD is not a reflection of an individual pathology but instead a reflection of the un-natural and pathological conditions of human society.  For this reason, the clinical sensibility of PTSD often serves to de-politicize and so dis-articulate the source and cause of traumatic harms in terms of individual deficiencies rather than in terms of patterns of regular, administrative, and entirely preventable forms of state-sanctioned violence. This discourse about animals and trauma continues to approach the symptoms of PTSD in isolation from the social conditions that are “pathological” or “bad,” precisely because they so often provoke the disorder.

Instead of all these animal studies about trauma, theorists and clinicians could pursue studies of why specific practices and procedures and institutions provoke and/or sustain traumatic violations that, predictably, lead many people who suffer from them to develop the symptoms of PTSD. So, for example, researchers could consider how the institution of the “home” and the distinction between the public and private domains produce and support the pathological practices of child rape and domestic assault. Or they could consider how the penal practices in our carceral system create the pathological conditions that provoke PTSD in so many people while they are incarcerated and after their release. 

We can better shift our perspective if we listen to the testimonies of trauma that we are so determined to exclude from our sensibility and our academic work.  In At the Mind’s Limits, his reflections on living-through his years in Auschwitz, Jean Améry expresses his admiration for those prisoners who could better adapt to and resist the conditions of camp life, though he insists that he could not do so and did not want to be like them. He suggests that there is something pathological about perfectly adapting to a pathological set of conditions.

From this perspective, we can better appreciate the insights offered by those who suffer from PTSD or suffer from the moral horror and shock of specifically traumatic violations that need not, and should not, occur, for their testimony acts as the emotional register of the social violence that we ignore, obfuscate, and exclude in our dominant discourses. For me, the critical question is not why some people develop the symptoms of PTSD after suffering from un-natural forms of violence and others who have similar experiences do not develop them, but rather how the rest of us are able to reconcile ourselves and adapt to the lethal conditions of American society such that we cannot feel or see its horror.    

Provocative and fascinating, Lissa. Would like to say anything else about something that you’ve discussed in this interview or recommend some articles, music, or other resources?

If readers and listeners would like a source to help them think-through Canadian history and the question of genocide, I would recommend a chapter by Dorota Glowacka, entitled “Never Forget’: Indigenous Memory of the Genocide and the Holocaust,” that will appear in the forthcoming Wayne State University Press publication, Holocaust Memory and Racism in the Postwar World, edited by Shirli Gilbert and Avril Alba.

If readers and listeners of this interview would like a good example of how hip-hop opposes the clinical approach to trauma as an individual pathology, I would recommend the most recent album by Meek Mill, Championships and, in particular, the track titled “Trauma”.  

For a good example of how hip-hop opposes the white sensibility of racism and the discursive practices that consistently defer the systemic nature of anti-black violence, I would recommend watching the CNN interview with Meek Mill about the album Championships. I provide an analysis of this interview in my forthcoming book.

[Description of photo below: Lissa (middle), hip-hop artist Bates (left), and hip-hop artist B.L. Shirelle (right) sit close together on a couch, laughing at the camera. Lissa, whose eyes are closed in laughter and whose right arm is around Bates’s shoulders, is holding a plastic cup with her left hand. Bates, on whose thighs an open laptop rests, is gesturing with their right index-finger in the direction of the person taking the photo. B.L. Shirelle’s, whose right arm is around Lissa’s back, holds a bottle of water in their left hand. Graffiti and stickers adorn the wood-paneled wall behind them.]

For two good examples of how hip-hop can function as a type of EMDR, I would recommend the songs “I Get Out” by Lauryn Hill and “Battle Cry” by Angel Haze.

Lastly, I would recommend the exceptional new Showtime documentary  “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” to learn more about this legendary group that is so fundamental to the heartbeat of underground hip-hop culture.   

Thank you again, Shelley; it’s always a pleasure.

Lissa, the pleasure has been all mine. Thank you for another outstanding interview and additional fantastic recommendations. Welcome back to Canada!

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Lissa Sktiolsky’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, August 21st, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-third installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.


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