Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Emily R. Douglas

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fifty-eighth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am 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 the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Emily R. Douglas. Emily is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at McGill University, in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal, the traditional lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and others. They grew up in Western Canada, primarily on the lands of the Secwepemc in British Columbia (specifically, the Skeetchestn Indian Band) and Treaty 6 First Nations in Alberta. Emily, who works at the intersections of feminist philosophy, 20th-century Continental philosophy, and philosophy of disability, has previously published in Foucault Studies (2014) and is currently co-editing (with Corinne Lajoie at Penn State) a special issue of Puncta on critical phenomenologies of illness, sickness, and disability. Emily spends spare time with two cats, reading auto-theory, and experimenting with dance/bodywork.   

**Please note that this interview includes discussion of suicide**

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Emily! You grew up in rural British Columbia, with two well-educated parents. Yet your family was in the lower end of the economic spectrum. Please tell us more about your background and how it led you to philosophy.

Thank you, Shelley. I am so glad that you have created this interview series as a platform for disabled philosophers.

My parents both have university degrees (my father has a Ph.D. in an agricultural field), and so they always encouraged me and my siblings in academic work. Nevertheless, as a child, I also saw that these degrees did not guarantee stable work or income. In the rural setting where we lived, we didn’t fit in with most of the low-income working-class folks nor the better-off folks. My father had significant trouble finding steady employment outside the area of his Ph.D. (a specialized agriculture), which was no longer a viable option.

[Description of photo below: Shot outdoors, this photo shows Emily, who is wearing a t-shirt that reads “GAL PAL,” in conversation with a pair of goats. Emily’s right hand is extended to one of the goats who seems to welcome it.]

When I was 15, we moved from B.C. to Edmonton, Alberta. In Edmonton, there was much more class diversity, but I also encountered peers who would tell me that their parents “worked hard to get where they are.” I have always known that my parents have worked hard, but that it nevertheless takes a significant amount of time to reach stability. In a way, my lived experience put down the myth of meritocracy very early. I say all of this in part because these experiences influenced both my drive to know things better and understand social systems, as well as influenced my hesitancy and worry about pursuing a career in academia.

I was also quite sad, sensitive, and lonely as a child. I remember that, at a very young age, I had strong concerns about controlling my emotions in public and learning that they were not appropriate to exhibit in public. I made sincere attempts at suicide several times as a child and adolescent, starting at quite an early age. I also have several large-scale concerns around what it means to experience death and significant anxiety around the constant passing of time.

One of the ways that I found myself was by reading voraciously, by going to the library and taking out as many books as my hands could hold. When I started high school, at age 12, I picked the novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder off the library shelf. Although less sociopolitical than my work has turned out to be, this book—which is a cross between fantasy and philosophy textbook—was an important tool. I found ways to channel my existential concerns into a field of knowledge. Although I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to link my mood instability and anxieties to this philosophical mode of thinking, the book definitely offered me new openings.

I’ve always found philosophy to be a way to cope with, and abstract from, my lived experience and as something that returns to my lived experience over and over again, presenting itself intimately at the most mundane of moments. I have always known that pursuing a Ph.D. and a career in academia would not be particularly easy; I have done so based on some calculated risks and benefits, as well as by noticing the stabilizing presence that learning often has in my life.

Although you have been assigned psychiatric diagnoses, Emily, you are philosophically and politically ambivalent about medical diagnosis of your situation. Please describe this ambivalence and explain how it conditions your research on madness.

That’s a good way to put it—both “philosophically and politically ambivalent.”

It’s a strange thing to be a philosopher straddling diagnoses, predominantly psychiatric diagnoses in my case, especially if one is a philosopher who does not believe that all illnesses are natural kinds or accidental impairments. In some ways, diagnoses have saved my life: they have afforded me access to care, access to certain accommodations in the academic system, and even access to another language to talk about my experiences. At the same time, the diagnoses of the DSM and associated texts can feel like a trap, can make one feel part of a taxonomy, are depersonalizing, can make one feel trapped within a certain notion of what one ought to be. In other words, diagnoses can be like a double-edged sword—both necessary and helpful in some ways and harmful in other ways. One of the diagnoses that I received in the last couple of years falls under a cluster of diagnoses that are severely stigmatized, adding another complexity: I often do not disclose this diagnosis for fear of judgment. Indeed, many remaining diagnoses carry the traces of sexism, gender norms, and very clear ableism. It is a difficult thing to take up a diagnosis that the medical profession, in general, thinks is an objective truth, while knowing very well the political inflections of the diagnosis. There is also a certain model of a rational and autonomous individual which carries through in our ideas of what disorder is.

Certainly, my feminist Foucauldian education as an undergraduate did not make things easier. In addition to giving me a new way to talk about these things—namely madness, abnormality, and so on—this education made me increasingly aware of the ways in which my subjectivity is constructed through psychiatric power; that is, such processes create a person with diagnosis X in a similar way to what Foucault described as the creation of the homosexual: a new character type. We can get caught up in and internalize these character types.

Being a philosopher does not make one an easy patient in the formal medical system. Medical doctors tend not to like it when you point out that many diagnoses are not natural kinds, but rather social kinds, even entirely constructed.

As you have noted in your book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, many feminist philosophers take up and reassert uninformed assumptions about disability. On the other hand, many feminist philosophers seem to hold a kind of naive anti-psychiatric perspective. While I hold many sympathies with the anti-psychiatric viewpoint, I have been on psychiatric medication for more than half of my life. I am reluctant to raise the issue of psychiatric meds in these circles because it often seems as if, in these circles, their very use (and indeed, its necessity to live) is understood as a straightforward acceptance of a biomedical model. How can we hold both that madness is socially constructed and that some of us find psychiatric medications necessary for survival? Is there room for feminist philosophy of psychiatric disability that does not dismiss both of these prongs of experience?

As you’ve indicated, Emily, your work in general draws upon feminist philosophy, philosophy of disability, and Continental philosophy. Please outline your work that concentrates on psychosomatic illness and political agency.

I will start by saying a little bit about where I’m coming from to frame my concerns. The general threads that tie all my research together have been madness and embodiment. My M.A. thesis focused on the everyday, mundane ways in which laughter has gendered valences and can be deployed—or withheld—as potentially transgressive acts.

The focus on bodily comportment and discipline came from my first feminist philosophy studies, reading Iris Marion Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl” and Sandra Bartky’s “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” These articles reflect the two prongs of my methodology at present: the critical-phenomenological aspect and the Foucauldian aspect. There are other feminist philosophers trying to bring together these schools—notably, Johanna Oksala and Linda Martìn Alcoff. Out of this work, more general questions about the materiality of the body and its potential resistance have arisen, as well as concerns with the neglect of the body in studies of madness.

My work is constantly developing. Overall, my central questions now are: How and when do we call illness or physiological reactions political? Agential? Why and what are the stakes of this terminology? What structures of embodiment does it ask us to imagine, create, or discover? As such, I am focusing on illnesses and disorders that we tend to call psychosomatic or sociogenic. A part of my concern is also, in line with Johanna Hedva’s question: “What modes of protest are afforded to sick people?” I should highlight that I’m not a huge fan of the vocabulary of psychosomatic illness—sociogenic terminology suits me better. In any case, to be clear, I am taking people’s pains and illnesses as real and not imaginary, not as mere effects of discursive power but as lived experiences.

I also have found two examples from Foucault’s Collѐge de France lectures particularly inviting for explaining this project to others. In fact, these examples helped spark the project.

In Psychiatric Power, Foucault refers to the hysterics of the nineteenth century as a “front of resistance” and as “the true militants of antipsychiatry” (254). The symptoms of hysteria, such as silence, convulsions, laughter, and overtly sexual behaviour, were not “faked,” but rather arose involuntarily in the women, as a response and challenge to the knowledge claims of psychiatry. In Abnormal, Foucault presents the rash of possessions of Catholic nuns that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth century across Europe as “the aftereffect of a religious and detailed investment of the body and […] of an exhaustive discourse and exclusive authority” (205). He names convulsive flesh a “resistance effect” (213) and speaks about these groups of women as fronts of resistance, but also notes that this “simulation” was not a voluntary strategy. Further, it’s not clear whether these epidemics resulted in better conditions.

If we think about the examples from Foucault that I highlight above, we can recognize that there are at least two main ways to interpret hysteria and possession. The first interpretation would see both these phenomena as mere effects of power on the body as illnesses that arise because of oppressive social norms and organizations. The second interpretation of both these phenomena is in line with some feminist theorists who reclaimed hysteria in the 1980s, figuring these symptoms as modes of political protest against oppression. Neither of these interpretations seems entirely correct to me. My work, rather than trying to determine the true source or an etiology of psychosomatic illness, focuses on how our treatments of the sick casts Them as Agential or not. What are the stakes of making such interpretations? With this starting point, my dissertation project takes up critical phenomenology, Black studies and philosophy, and new materialist feminist theories.

Another major starting-point for the dissertation comes out of my work on Frantz Fanon. I find that Fanon’s critical phenomenology allows us to make sense of the ways in which bodies react to and with oppression according to their differentiations. Over the last several years, I have focused on taking up Fanon’s usage of muscular references and medical metaphors in Black Skin White Masks, as well as his discussion of the psychosomatic (which he prefers to call the corticovisceral) in The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon’s explicitly psychiatric and medical writings provide resources for how to think about the effects of and resistance to colonization through the bodies of the colonized. I follow in the lines of several scholars who argue that Fanon’s use of metaphors of disablement and illness are not mere metaphors, but rather places of coalition between critical race phenomenology and disability studies.

I take Fanon to be implicitly making an argument about what Jasbir Puar, in The Right to Maim: Disability, Capacity, Debility, calls “debilitation.” As a rejoinder to western disability-rights discourses, Puar presents the notion of debility, which is disability that is intentionally created in order to facilitate certain biopolitical strategies. I argue that Fanon provides us with fragments of a phenomenology of colonial debilitation, and we can position his studies of the Algerian context as revealing a proto-right to maim. The recent collection of Fanon’s psychiatric and unpublished writings, Alienation and Freedom has been particularly useful for this part of the project.

Another landmark part of my dissertation will ask more explicitly what agency or resistance could mean in instances of extreme oppression. The motivation for this part of the dissertation derives from hesitancy to say that psychosomatic illnesses could easily be called revolts. Saidiya Hartman (1998) and Alexander Weheliye (2014), along with several other Black studies theorists, have asked whether agency is a suitable word to use in conditions of extreme oppression such as transatlantic slavery, or whether such states undo the very idea of agency. As Weheliye states, “resistance and agency assume full, self-present, and coherent subjects working against something or someone. […] we might come to a more layered and improvisatory understanding of extreme subjection if we do not decide in advance what forms its disfigurations should take on” (2). Part of the problem here is that agency and resistance are linked to an idealized subject form, a certain kind of subjectivation.

Once we let go of certain mainstays of theorizing about agency, the questions about illness and disability also become complicated. As part of this work, I engage with the ongoing critiques of disability studies as an (often unnamed) white space, following the work of Nirmala Erevelles that examines the co-constitution of the social meanings of blackness and disability. In an age where racial health disparities, epigenetics, and somatic approaches to therapy are gaining more attention and traction, this work feels imperative to me.

Some feminist philosophers have adopted “new” materialist approaches to the body, recommending such approaches for analysis of a variety of issues and states of affairs, including analysis of disability. You have indicated to me that you are both attracted to and wary of these new feminist materialisms. Please explain this reluctance to take up with this work. Does this reluctance stem from your use of Foucault, Fanon, or any other author in particular?

Much of my attraction to and fascination with the new materialist movements comes from its insistence that we pay attention to the real matter of the body. Although such claims often ignore feminist science scholarship, I do think that a greater attention to the laterality and materiality of bodies beyond the discursive is both necessary and helpful.

I guess that I have two main disagreements with much of the literature around new feminist materialism. Of course, the theorists included under this umbrella are heterogeneous and these concerns don’t apply to all of them. However, many of them will insist that this kind of material analysis must either drop references to larger political concerns (like identities, race, and gender, for example) or that such political concerns can be explained in a reduction of matter through this more fine-tuned analysis. Axelle Karera (2019) takes the posthumanist strain of new materialism to task for this, arguing that “new materialists’ bids to move beyond the human […] may represent an exit route away from the ontological violence” central to Black suffering and Black existence.

Again, not all new materialists make this move: for one, I think that Mel Chen’s book Animacies, in its analysis of both multiple chemical sensitivity and racialization of certain forms of toxicity, really works with and between both scales.

My second concern aligns with what Sara Ahmed highlighted in her critique of new materialism (2008). Ahmed worries that “matter becomes a fetish Object,” one that we might say is reified itself as an openness and an antidote to cultural discourse. Kyla Schuller points out something similar in her new book The Biopolitics Of Feeling (2018): viewing matter as not deterministic, but instead infinitely pliable and mutable is not in itself an inherently liberatory movement. This line also resonates with Lynne Huffer’s concerns about a “return to life itself” (2015, “Foucault’s Fossils”). At the same time as I would also insist upon the incorporation of matter and materiality in discussions of embodiment, I do not believe that this embodied matter can be viewed as a pure sphere immune to interference.

I think that these hesitations contain both Foucauldian and Fanonian impulses: about the inextricability of the matter of the body from its social and political environments, about certain claims and usages of scientific data, and certain views of what it means to be a subject.

Nevertheless, as I have already said, I think there is much usefulness to be found in interlocution with feminist new materialists. Elizabeth Wilson is one of the new materialist feminists whom I am most sympathetic with. Indeed, I find much within Gut Feminism admirable and useful. Her analysis of the placebo workings of antidepressant medication is very powerful. In one part of my dissertation, I take seriously her assertion that what we call psychosomatism may be the exercise of a biological unconscious (drawing upon Sandor Ferenczi). Wilson carefully examines the changes in organic functioning that occur in so-called hysterical conversion, through illnesses such as bulimia. She both emphasizes that material changes have taken place and re-centers the importance of the enteric nervous system, particularly the gut, in our overall functioning. Rather than attributing these material changes to an unacknowledged mental wish, Wilson places a different kind of will in the matter of bodily organs. In a biological unconscious. Still, I found that there were enough Orthodox Freudian beliefs underlying this image of a biological unconscious. While the inner repressed desire or wish is moved from a psychological unconscious to one of matter, it’s not clear that this is always with going on in the conditions that concern me. I draw upon disability theorist Anna Mollow, who instead of considering the body as broadly analogous to our images of the mind, suggests that the body is a kind of stubborn matter (“Criphystemologies”).

[Description of photo below: a profile headshot of Emily taken from the left side of them. Their head, which is covered with very short hair, is tilted back slightly, they are wearing glasses with a circular plastic frame, and have a determined and thoughtful expression on their face. A window can be seen behind them.]

You have encountered significant obstacles due to inaccessibility. Please describe these forms of inaccessibility and recommend ways in which they should be eliminated.

My access needs are primarily invisible and one landmark in disability studies that I’ve been able to hold on to is Ellen Samuels’s paper “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.” As someone both queer and dealing with invisible disabilities, I must repeatedly affirm both of these identities. I am not often read as dealing with a disability, unless I am wearing the arm brace for my repetitive strain injury (RSI). The constant questioning of my status with respect to health and ability creates a situation of constant coming out, both in general and in the academy in particular. I suspect that there are still many philosophers, including many feminist philosophers, who do not disclose their disability due to its invisibility, stigma, or the assumptions about who is a good philosopher and what a good philosopher ought to do.

Regarding my psychiatric disability and madness, access has rarely been easy. Many professors across the board still regard mental health as a kind of individual struggle that is not systemic nor related to disability or access barriers. This form of inaccessibility is alleviated somewhat by registering with the disability services office at a school, which has more weight than individual students. More concretely, McGill University, like many post-secondary education systems in this era of the university-as-corporation, has a notoriously poor set of services for psychological and psychiatric needs. What has been suggested to me several times—and I know has been suggested to peers—is to take a leave of absence. This suggestion fails to take into consideration the fact that such a leave and separation from routine and structure may not be the best thing for a certain student. The fact that one may be in significant distress for long periods of time, at often unpredictable intervals, is not amenable to an academic system in which both their funding and good standing of students is dependent upon a standardized timeline. I would recommend that leaves of absence should certainly be offered; but that they should not be regarded as the first or best intervention for mental illness or madness.

Last year, I began experiencing severe symptoms of RSI. I simply cannot type for the amount of time that many students do. Although I can partially work around this circumstance through dictation software (which is pretty inaccurate at best and requires intensive proofreading), my workflow is heavily disrupted. “Pushing through,” as many do, can result in longer periods in which I am unable to use my right hand. I used to frequently work in cafés and spaces at the university; but when I have a flareup and cannot type at all, I have to work at my home because I must be in a quiet space to use the dictation software and microphone. I have not been able to secure private work-space on the McGill campus through either the library or my department. Even the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) suggested to me that I book rooms meant for group study in the library—rooms that are seldom available—instead of providing me with a steadily available space.

Regarding academic events, such as conferences and talks, one of my major access issues is hearing—I am somewhat hard-of-hearing. Although many conferences will now provide minimal accessibility for wheelchair users, microphones are often not provided for speakers, speakers often do not use microphones when they are provided, and conference organizers often do not enforce use of them. In busy rooms that might have poor acoustics to begin with, this lack of accessibility is especially very frustrating. Other norms, such as the requirement to either sit or stand (but not alternate) for long periods of time have become very difficult for me due to my RSI. On the whole, I see events that mostly meet a minimal level of accessibility (if they meet any level), but do not yet consider the full range of different access needs for all of us. I would like to encourage those organizing conferences and events to provide quiet rooms and scent-free spaces and to make sure that there are adequate breaks and opportunities for opportunities to stretch and move as they may need.

Emily, would you like to raise any other issues, add to remarks that you’ve made in this interview, or recommend some resources to our listeners and readers?

Yes. First, as I mentioned before, my dear friend and colleague Corinne Lajoie (Ph.D. student, Penn State) and I are co-editing a special issue of Puncta: Journal of Critical Phenomenology. People who are interested in some of the issues that I’ve discussed should keep tabs on this project which arose from our continuing dialogues about how critical phenomenology can afford new perspectives on illness, sickness, and disability. You can find the expired CFP here. Corinne also has an excellent article on disorientation in illness in Hypatia.

I would also like to mention the work of my dear friend Joshua St. Pierre, a past interviewee of Dialogues on Disability. Josh, who was recently hired in the Political Science Department of University of Alberta, works at the intersection of crip phenomenology and political theory.

I recommend a podcast interview with Alexander Weheliye on his critique of bare life and the small deformations of freedom available in oppression.

Next, I recommend Johanna Hedva‘s “Sick Woman Theory” and “Letters to a Young Doctor“.

I also want to recommend Anna Mollow’s “Criphystemologies: What Disability Theory Needs to Know about Hysteria” in Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 

Finally, I want to thank the many, many friends and colleagues who have supported me and continue to support me during the times when I cannot cook or get out of bed and must resist the rat-race attitude of academic philosophy for my own well-being.  

Emily, thank you very much for this very interesting interview. You have provided readers and listeners with many new ideas and resources throughout your interview which is a welcome addition to the Dialogues on Disability series.

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

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 19th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-ninth 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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