Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Karl Viertel

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixtieth 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 Karl Viertel. Karl, who was previously interviewed in the series, studies Classical German Philosophy and Phenomenology. When he is not nose-deep in a German text, he can be found in a coffee shop, playing his saxophone, or chasing after his five-year-old son.

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

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Karl! I’m delighted to interview you again for the series. We conducted your first interview in August 2016 under the same pseudonym that we will use for this interview. Please explain to our readers and listeners who may not have visited your previous interview, why you feel that it is dangerous for you to conduct these interviews under your given names.

Hi Shelley.  It’s nice to be back.  My participation in the series is based on my continuous bout with clinical depression and social anxiety. I have three reasons for wanting to appear under a pseudonym.  For one, my story does not fit neatly into contemporary narratives about the mixture between professional life and disability: my life is not normal, productive,nor healthy in spite of my struggle with depression. Rather, my depression is rather unwieldy and affects every part of my life, despite my best efforts to curtail it.  For instance, this past fall, I tried a series of different medications after it became clear that the mixture of meds that I had been taking was not working. The side-effects that I experienced from these various medications were so acute that they made all non-teaching work impossible. One day, the side-effects were so severe that I actually had to cancel classes. This is the kind of thing that I think people need to hear about, but that I cannot have associated with me.

I am in a non-tenure-track position and have some hopes that, one day, I will procure a tenure-track job. As readers and listeners know, the competition of for these positions is steep and search committees regularly look for reasons not to hire a candidate.  If others were to know about my disability, this knowledge would only hurt my chances.  I can’t afford the risk. The stigmata associated with forms of mental disability are particularly acute, mainly because many people still do not view it as a form of disability or know how to respond to it as a disability. I’ve spent my whole life trying to legitimize my disability, both to others as well as to myself. I think that it’s important that I be able to exercise some agency over the terms of that struggle and with respect to the people with whom I engage as part of that struggle. The last thing that I need is for one of my colleagues to look at me askance, wondering why I am “so weak” or why I can’t just “get over it.”

In your previous interview, you indicated that although you identified as experiencing depression, you did not identify as disabled. You also noted, however, that this series has motivated you to rethink your reluctance to identify as disabled. What do you think about your identification now?

This issue is something with which I continue to struggle. I’ve begun to see that it profoundly affects the nature of my depression itself.  I have learned some things about mindfulness and depression and have come to see that my previous way of thinking about depression might have been exacerbating it. For one, I think that it is actually dangerous for me to identify too heavily with my depression. When I do, moments during which I am not feeling depressed seem strange and uncomfortable to me, as though I am not myself unless I am depressed. I start to look for reasons to be depressed and try to drag myself down in order to remain in a place where I feel comfortable.

On the other hand, distancing myself too much from the fact of my depression comes with some deleterious consequences of its own. These negative consequences arise in moments when I stop thinking about depression as a medical condition and start to think about it as a constitutional weakness that I somehow have, that I just need to pull myself up or get myself together.  In other words, I think the right attitude towards it is a balance between two extremes: I have depression, but I am much more besides.

These days, I think it is important for me to regard the depression that I experience as a disability. There are things demanded of me as a member of this society that are genuinely challenging for me. For one thing, my style of working does not conform well to the kind of hyper-productivity that is demanded of academics or laborers generally.  Aristotle says that there is no philosophy without leisure. I think that this claim is particularly true of the depressed philosopher.  My work, of which I’m quite proud, also takes time to do well; but I also feel like it’s never being done fast enough, that I am held to an unreasonable standard.  For another thing, there is an expectation that the workplace should be filled with cheerfulness and optimism. There are many days on which this expectation is almost impossible for me to fulfill, days during which it takes every ounce of energy that I can muster to smile and pretend that all is well. Frequently, I cannot pull it off; a complaint squeaks out or I say something that reveals that I’m trying too hard. These moments further reinforce my sense of alienation.

You have indicated, both in your previous interview and in our personal correspondence, that depression reverberates throughout your professional life and is directly related to your research. Would you like to elaborate on how depression conditions your career and your writing?

I’d like to break my answer to this question into three parts:

1.  For me, one of the biggest contributors to my depression is a persistent feeling of alienation.  I don’t always feel at home in this world and feel like things that come easily to other people—time management, organization, fiscal responsibility—are really challenging for me. So, I certainly have an affinity for stories about philosophers who have had similar struggles. Socrates, for one, is frequently depicted as a loner and kind of a weirdo, a guy who was unaware of social refinement and could not hold down a steady job. And so, I think books like the Republic are really great because you get an apologetics for the impractically minded philosopher. Plato ends up saying, at several points, that philosophers are poorly attuned to practical matters because they have more important things in mind.  And I think that, without the haughtiness, that describes me perfectly.  I’m much more at home in the world of thought than in the world of action.

This is also how I like to think about the stories of the German philosophers that I love so much. Hegel, for all his genius, had a tremendous fear of public speaking and would often stutter when doing so. Fichte was obsessive about his Wissenschaftslehre and rewrote it over and over again. And, of course, we all know about Kant’s obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Perhaps these are not personality quirks, but rather essential features and results of their brilliance. Perhaps these philosophers could only do the work that they did because they were at home in the realm of ideas; and their familiarity with the realm of ideas distanced them from the realm of the quotidian. This, in any case, is how Plato saw it with philosophers, generally, and is certainly a narrative that resonates with me.

2.  I also think there are certain traits that come with a depressive disposition that lend themselves well to philosophical work.  To take one example, I am extremely self-critical. While this characteristic, unfettered, has certainly hindered me at certain points, I’ve also been able to hone it into a genuine ability to see my faults clearly and accept them. I’ve thus been able to pore over the tiniest details in my work, recognize the flaws within them, and fix them. I think that I can assess my own work better than any peer reviewer can, and this has served me well in my career. For instance, my first publication was accepted to a top journal in our field on initial submission. I do not think that would have been possible without my capacity for honest assessment.

To take another example, I think that depressive perseveration is closely related to philosophical rumination. They are both born of a kind of obsession: on the one hand, I can spend hours thinking over some situation in which I said something that I wish I hadn’t; and on the other, I can spend years thinking through some philosophical problem, trying to get it to open itself up to me a little. To be sure, I think that philosophical thinking, when done well, is not nearly as destructive as one might think perseveration to be, and is in fact constructive: when we succeed, we find a little bit of the world that makes more sense to us. But Hegel also loves to reflect upon how those things that are most closely related are also, and for that very reason, the most strongly opposed: for instance, sports teams only form rivalries with teams of the same sport and in close geographical proximity.  Perhaps perseveration and rumination are “related” in the same way.

3.  Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder. But we only really wonder if we are somehow dissatisfied with the way things are, if our ordinary descriptions and beliefs and habits are, for whatever reason, inadequate for us. This involves a kind of detachment between us and everything else around us.  Philosophy is rife with discussion of this kind of detachment in terms that sound a whole lot like the attitude of depression.  Plato makes note of the sort of pain involved in philosophical thinking in the Theaetetus, when Socrates remarks that Theaetetus’ struggles are akin to “the pangs of labor.” Augustine regularly speaks of the kind of anguish that preceded his inquiries into the nature of God and matters of ultimate reality. Hegel calls his Phenomenology of Spirit a “way of despair.” For him, part of the process of attaining genuine, philosophical knowledge involves the renunciation of previous belief, and so despair that our usual way of knowing will yield the kind of knowledge that we want. Kierkegaard makes much use of what he calls “the knight of infinite resignation,” one who has become completely detached from the joys of this world. Nietzsche regularly speaks about healthy and sickened attitudes of mind. And, of course, we all know the importance of anxiety for existentialist philosophy, generally.

It is one thing, and no mean feat, to be able to doubt radically and to be able to carry this doubt forward as a theoretical exercise. But the depressive philosopher/person is deeply unsure of whether there is joy and purpose to be found in this world and is desperate to find order in what appears to be mere chaos. This attitude fuels a quest for certainty of a rather unique sort, turns philosophy into something much different than the mere play of ideas.  Hegel uses the word, “experience” [Erfahrung] in a robust sense: it means the kind of event that changes the way in which one sees the world—what we today like to call “transformational experience.” For one who carries doubt with them as an existential attitude, philosophy can provide experiences in this sense of the word.

This is not to say that one must be depressed in order to do philosophy; but I think that, whenever one undertakes philosophical doubt as an existential attitude, one is at least brushing up against the borders of depression. And for those who experience depression, philosophy can be a kind of salve. For I don’t think there’s any other discipline that is so well equipped to address the perceived meaninglessness of existence or the perceived worthlessness of one’s life. At the very beginning of his Encyclopedia, Hegel writes, “Philosophy lacks the advantage from which the other sciences benefit, namely the ability to presuppose both its objects as immediately endorsed by representation of them and an acknowledged method of knowing, which would determine its starting-point and progression.” This remark is tantamount to saying: only philosophy treats radical doubt as a serious problem; only philosophy is adequately equipped to respond to it.

Karl, you have stopped applying for tenure-track jobs. You regard this decision as directly related to your depression. Would you mind sharing with us what happened and what impacted your decision?

Sure. My decision resulted from my most recent clinical episode, which began in December 2018. This episode occurred at the end of another job market cycle in which I failed to procure a single interview.  I found myself dealing with the disappointment of the job cycle, end-of-semester stress, research deadlines, and personal issues all at the same time.  It was too much to bear. What followed was my worst bout with depression yet. At the lowest points, I would spend the better part of the day thinking about death: wanting to die, thinking about taking matters into my own hands. It became something of an obsession. But every time that I came close, I thought about what that action would do to my son. I did some research about children of parents who commit suicide, and the stats are not pretty. That was really my biggest deterrent. Still, I spent the better part of 2019 this way and I am still not sure I’ve completely recovered.

As a result of this, I’ve had to greatly curtail my work-related activities. I decided that I can’t make myself vulnerable to that kind of pain again. But this decision comes at a high cost in our field: for me, it’s meant remaining in my current position, for which I’m grossly underpaid and grossly overqualified; it’s meant begging for extensions on all my projects with deadlines; and, as a result, it’s also meant alienating some colleagues, including colleagues who were once eager to work with me. And all of these circumstances have ramifications for my depression as well: I find myself further distanced from others with whom I should have a sense of mutual recognition and solidarity and further distanced from one of the main centers of meaning in my life.

In some corners of the profession, there is a narrative according to which philosophers who are unsuccessful in their search for a position are often happier outside of philosophy. You are emphatic that this narrative or observation does not apply to you. Please explain what you think about this claim and why it doesn’t fit with your experience.

I’ve started a second career as an indexer/editor in order to make ends meet. It’s a good side gig: it pays well, there’s real demand for it, and the politics in that field are, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite tame compared to philosophy. But it’s not really satisfying work and there is no part of me that feels connected to the work or invested in it like I am when I’m doing philosophy.

According to the prevailing narrative, those who leave academia are supposed to be happy to leave behind all of these negative aspects of the field: the pressures of the tenure clock are too great; the academy is becoming increasingly bureaucratized; academics (and particularly philosophers) are backward-thinking, egotistical, and wield power in all the most untoward ways.

I know this narrative to be true of friends of mine who have left the academy. And yet, I think that we need to be careful about how broadly we take this to apply, for it certainly does not apply in my case, and there must be others like me. I have worked as an accountant and in the non-profit world and have a lot of experience outside of the academy. I’ve found nothing there that serves as a substitute for philosophy. We need to make cases like this part of the narrative as well: the system can be broken and awful, and there can be people who want to be there anyway. In other words, I think that this prevailing narrative serves as a palliative for tenure-line faculty and administrators.  Rather than put in the real work to make sure that philosophers who want a place in the academy can find one, tenure-line philosophy faculty and administrators tell these kinds of stories in order to make themselves feel good about the fact that some deserving philosophers don’t make it. I think that there needs to be real pressure to get people in our field to think seriously about the way that they are limiting other philosophers.

What do you think philosophers need to do to make philosophy and academia more generally welcoming to philosophers who experience depression and whose work patterns may not have the consistency to which they are accustomed?

For one, although I think that it’s unlikely, the job-market cycle has got to change. It is an extra, full-time job that applicants have on top of their often significant teaching loads, research demands, and personal lives. And the job market typically comes at a time of year when all of these aspects are at a peak: most applicants find themselves applying for jobs during a time when many conferences are held, students are heading towards their final exams, and the holiday season is nearby. Personally, I’ve spent too many years scraping by to patch together a meaningful holiday season for my son because I’m stretched so thin in every other area of my life. It’s not fair to him and it’s not fair to me. This is a point that holds generally, but the flaws of the job market affect the depressed philosopher in a particularly acute fashion. Stress is a trigger for most people with depression and if you want a job in philosophy, you are forced to take on a lot of it. As a result, I end up not just tired or overwhelmed while celebrating with my son, but miserable as well.

I also think that the expectations on philosophers’ productivity are way too high and need to change. Kant famously had a silent decade, publishing nothing between 1770 –1781.  The thought of any philosopher having a silent decade in today’s university is laughable. This kind of pressure-cooker environment does not create better work, just more of it. And again, not everybody works this way. In the preface to his Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche demands that his audience read “like a cow” and “ruminate.”  There is no room for rumination in contemporary philosophy.

I made this point in my previous interview as well, but the point bears repeating: the narratives that prevail around who gets hired and who doesn’t get hired need to change. My narrative does not fit neatly with the prevailing one because my depression was either untreated or under-treated for most of my time as a student. I can’t be the only philosopher who’s taken an odd path to where I am, and I think there’s something to be said for the kind of resolve that I built on that route. I wish that more search committees would see things that way.

Karl, would you like to add anything about something we’ve discussed or offer our readers and listeners some recommendations of resources such as articles or videos or music?

Sure. For one, I think the Netflix series, BoJack Horseman, provides the two best portrayals of depression that I’ve ever seen: that of the title character and of his friend, Diane Nguyen. Every episode delves deeply into another side of the main character, and the result is an unflinchingly accurate account of the lived experience of depression. Most relevant in this regard is episode 6, season 4, “Stupid Piece of Sh*t.” You can find the series here: https://www.netflix.com/title/70300800

I also mentioned, above, how philosophy is well equipped to deal with the kind of radical doubt that can accompany depression. I’m probably biased here, but I also think that Hegel did a really great job of fighting this sort of skepticism. Two books that show Hegel’s anti-skepticism really well are Kenneth Westphal’s Hegel’s Epistemological Realism and William Bristow’s Hegel and the Transformation of Philosophical Critique. For an outstanding treatment of the attitude of post-Kantian thought, generally, toward skepticism, see Paul Franks’s All or Nothing.

Finally—and I really can’t help myself here—I’m a huge fan of jazz music and I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without recommending some. I think that Thelonious Monk portrays really well what it feels like to not fit in; and so, I find in his music the feeling of alienation that can accompany depression.  Here are two good albums of his:

Monk’s Dream:

Thelonious Monk Trio:

I also sense real similarities between Hegel and the music of John Coltrane.  Not only is there a profoundly elegant complexity at work in both of them (look up “the Coltrane changes” if you want to see what I mean), but there are no other figures, as far as I know, who express such boldness in the face of doubt. The best example that I can think of in this case is Coltrane’s classic record, A Love Supreme:

Karl, thank you very much for these terrific recommendations and for your provocative remarks throughout this interview. I hope that many of our readers and listeners will ruminate over them!

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Karl Viertel’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, April 15th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifth anniversary 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.

5 Responses

  1. Nadhir Nasir

    I always enjoy and look forward to read the series of interview conducted. This interview certainly reminded me about the need to recognize, understand, and embrace neurodiversity in higher education and other employment settings. This interview triggered many things in my head; impairment disclosure, impairment identity, mental health problem, and wellbeing. This certainly helps me to develop my work on critical ontology of impairment. Can’t wait for the next edition!

    Like

  2. introvertica

    Because of the chaos of the pandemic and the lockdown, I only discovered this interview today, even though I was notified of it months ago.

    It is brilliant.

    Thank you, Karl Viertel, for discussing your experiences and thoughts, and thank you, Shelley Tremain, for providing a context in which these experiences and thoughts can be openly (even if pseudonymously, which I entirely understand) discussed.

    I have never before read anything indicating the possible benefits of depression for doing philosophical work. All my life I have been doing philosophy while dealing with depression, and it frankly never occurred to me see advantages to it. Professor Viertel, I find your suggestions persuasive.

    I also think your scepticism about the potential happiness of people who are excluded from philosophical careers is justified. My observation is that people who choose philosophy usually do so because they love doing philosophy. Hence, to be prevented from living a life where they, primarily, do philosophy is of course a loss for many people.

    Like

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