Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Gerald Moore

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-first 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.

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 Gerald Moore. Gerald is Professor of Contemporary French philosophy in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University, Associate Director of Durham’s Centre for Culture and Ecology, and coordinator of the Digital Studies research group, digital studies being the name his long-term collaborator, philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler, coined for the study of how biological bodies are reinvented by technology and its social organization. Following Stiegler’s death last summer, Gerald became Chair of the Collège scientifique at the Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation. Most of Gerald’s spare time is spent dialyzing due to polycystic kidney disease (PKD) . His publications include Politics of the Gift: Exchanges in Poststructuralism (Edinburgh University Press, 2011) and Stiegler and Technics (co-edited with Christina Howells, Edinburgh UP, 2013).

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Gerald! Please tell us about your background and what led you to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy.

I grew up in the northern English ex-industrial stronghold of Sheffield in the 1980s and ‘90s, which I thought was gritty until I met a southerner who described my area of England as “the Kensington of the North.” My father was (and still is) a noted medieval historian and my mother also taught history. Like my twin brother, Richard, who was interviewed for Dialogues on Disability in February 2019, I turned to philosophy in my teens because I (like him) had some major existential issues and because its grand sweep of the bigger questions seemed like a kind of resistance against the mostly trivial details and minor facts that we both associated with history.

Philosophy served us, in other words, as a tool of both low-level bourgeois rebellion and much-needed therapy—a means of turning away from the repressions of an adolescence haunted by the myth of Aristophanes. With a vague thought of becoming an academic economist or even running for parliament, I had wanted to do Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford; but they (rightly) said that I was too emotionally under-developed. Ironically, given its then-reputation for intellectual debauchery, I ended up doing Continental philosophy during its heyday at Warwick University, starting in 1998. Nina Power, Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano were fellow students, though older than me. The future alt-right prophet Nick Land had just been booted out of the department and the Nietzscho-Deleuzian Keith Ansell-Pearson was in the ascendancy. It was daunting and felt very transgressive but it was an exciting time. Although I wasn’t a particularly happy undergrad, philosophy took me a long way towards flourishing. I remain arrogantly adamant that studying philosophy at Warwick is what has enabled me to cope so well with illness. I was trained in stoicism and being “equal to the event” long before my diagnosis, at 28, of PKD.

Gerald, you don’t have a Ph.D. in Philosophy, but rather French. Many, if not most, philosophers would not consider you a bona fide philosopher. But you evidently consider yourself a philosopher. How would you explain this discrepancy? And why did you leave a Ph.D. program in philosophy to work on a Ph.D. in a French department?

Well, my Ph.D. was supervised and examined by philosophers and I had offers to do exactly the same research in established philosophy departments. I also taught philosophy at both Oxford and Cambridge, so I think it is fair enough to self-describe as such—and would hope others agree, although I don’t have much confidence that they do. I hanker after philosophical legitimacy, but make no forceful claims to it. Tipping my hat to the anti-philosophy espoused by Badiou, Groys, and Laruelle, among others, I’m not sure it’s something to which one should aspire.

I argued in my Politics of the Gift that there is a philosophical tendency, running at least from Plato to Hegel, Heidegger, and maybe also Deleuze, to see politics happening only through the failure or absence of philosophy. And Bernard Stiegler once remarked to me that “there comes a point when one has to stop doing philosophy and start being a citizen,” by which he meant that hermetic intellectual masturbation is no good to anyone. I’m not persuaded that most philosophers—analytic and continental alike—aren’t onanizing over trivia, but I guess that’s true of most academics, shameless hyperspecialists that we all are. It’s a systemic fault of the system of overproduction that is the modern research university.

In any event, my move into French began pragmatically before becoming a virtue. I owe its possibility to a relatively minor disability. You’d only know it from my loud voice, but I was born deaf in my left ear and lost half of the hearing in my remaining right ear as a child. I realized as a teenager that I needed to teach myself to hear with concentration and without passivity, so I started to take notes off French radio, which meant that I eventually read Descartes, Rousseau, and others in French at university. At the time of my grad school applications in 2001, I was repeatedly told there was no career to be made in philosophy; that all the departments would soon close, and that I’d be best off lining myself up for something like “European Studies.”

It was a different world back then: 9/11 had yet to take the sheen off cosmopolitical Blairism, cool Britannia, and globalization. I initially wanted to work under Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek, looking at the use of economic anthropology in Lacan, Deleuze, and Derrida, but decided I’d be better attended by another philosopher based in French, Ian James, at Cambridge— then, as now, a haven for “French Theory.” My Ph.D. was on how two whole generations, from Bataille and Sartre to Derrida and Deleuze, had seen it necessary to pass through Marcel Mauss’s Essay on the Gift. Poststructuralism recognized that philosophy could continue to exist only if it returned to itself from a new breed of social scientific others. Metaphysics was over and we had to let everyone else do something approaching ontology, which condemns philosophy to a kind of parasitical existence, weaving in and out of other disciplines to extract concepts and cultivate knowledge in the service of life.

Of course, no one really cares about structural anthropology, psychoanalysis, and linguistics nowadays. Evolutionary studies and the quantitative data sciences are the new fields with which we have to engage. My post-Ph.D. research deals with the therapeutic role that remains for philosophy, which is, as ever, at risk of obsolescence in a world dominated by the combination of computational automation and economic Darwinism.

In my first job, at Oxford, I hovered around more conventional aspects of French Theory, but my interest in the arts suffered through three years of teaching mostly literature. In 2012, I was very relieved to end up in my current department, where students’ desire for something a bit different, plus Durham’s obsession with interdisciplinarity, meant colleagues were brilliant in encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. I have stayed in Modern Languages because of that freedom. I wonder how much longer that can continue, however, since most of my work now is on biology, neuroscience, and evolution, looking at the overlaps between Stiegler, Malabou, Canguilhem, and others with the so-called “extended” evolutionary synthesis. I’m becoming more analytically inclined, in that respect, and nowadays read more Dennett, Godfrey-Smith, and Sterelny than Derrida. I subscribe to broadly analytic ideas like the “consilience” of knowledge, but with a decidedly Continental inflection that means that I reject the kind of Darwinian humanities envisaged by Dennett and E. O. Wilson.

 I guess that I see what I do now as a combination of the “anthropology of philosophy” and what Stiegler called “digital studies.” Stiegler’s interest lay in how our distal limbs, physiological organs, and senses are de- and refunctionalised by technological prostheses that (in line with Derrida’s différance) bring about a transformation in our understanding of their underlying biology. Insofar as it functions as a nexus through which environmental stimuli leave their mark on the plastic brain, I have found the dopamine system to be a particularly useful focus for conceptualizing that idea, and have spent the last couple of years charting the relationship between technological change, sociopolitical turbulence, and apparent epidemics of addiction.

So, for example, I’m really taken with the idea that Plato’s obsession with weakness of the will came from a culture of intoxication that we can trace to the transformation of Greek culture by the technological system of writing. And I have also argued that we likewise neglect the extent to which Kant was responding to the disadjustments of early (Vauconsonian) automata and industrial society when he sought to isolate a source of human autonomy that could not simply be automated away, be it by books, drugs, or the rhythms of the mechanical loom. Coming off the back of my work on addiction, I’m lining up future projects on the extended immune system and what exactly we mean when we talk about impulsive and instinctual behaviour. Aside from the absence of less than tenuous links to French culture, there’s no great reason that this kind of work can’t be done from within Modern Languages. The division of the university into departments is anyhow an anachronism, dating back to the era of Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties, and the entire system is well overdue an overhaul. We’re facing a future with diminishing demand for qualified labour and where, from forest fires and flooding to COVID-19, we can’t even run semesters as normal. The universities of the Anthropocene will need to find very different modes of self-organization.

You feel that your current position and status fosters a sense of homelessness and anxiety for you which is at the heart of your work. Gerald, please try to articulate this feeling. Do you wish to continue to inhabit and nurture this feeling?

That’s a really nice way of putting it, but it has taken a long time to come to this realization and I can’t discount that health factors have preceded what nonetheless became a philosophically cultivated position. The worst bit of my Ph.D. was on Heidegger and the politics of Unheimischkeit (homelessness), which I wrote about rather formulaically and without identification. For a good few years, I was so grateful for secure employment that I didn’t think too hard about where I fitted in. But that is no longer the case, and I am torn between the freedom of my current department and the worry that colleagues see me as some kind of indulged and gilded amateur riding on the coattails of a legendary bullshit merchant.

Let’s start by saying that my homelessness has none of the peripatesis that we nowadays tend to fetishize. Without PKD, I think that I’d likely have sought to switch to an STS or history and philosophy of science department by now, or even better, would have sought to build one of my own in Durham; but I don’t have the energy for the latter and my accumulated sick leave entitlement would reset if I moved elsewhere, which is not a risk that I can take. Maybe if I went to conferences, I’d find more homes away from home. But, even before dialysis and transplant listing—which means I must stay within fifty miles of the hospital—that was no longer an option, due to the risk of infection and exhaustion. I was once hospitalized for a week in Paris after waking up unable to walk, and shortly before that I’d heard my toe snap while bending down in an airport. Perhaps Deleuze was right that the true nomad never moves at all…

I’m lucky to have super-departmental research structures, like Durham’s Institute for Advanced Study—but the issue there, of course, is that they serve predominantly as churches for the converted and end up getting treated as expendable luxuries, rather than the starting point for all new research. I work very closely with Stiegler’s Parisian Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation, whose mission is to demonstrate the import of contemporary philosophy of technology for politics, industry, and education; but acceptance as a philosopher in (some) French circles can make the anglophone indifference more frustrating. There’s a noble tradition of French philosophy outside the academy, but huge snobbery on the part of the (habitually mediocre) institutional elites, too.

I think some of my complex stems from watching someone like Stiegler receive recognition from all quarters, while still being more or less absent from the shelves of Paris’s most prestigious philosophical bookshop. About ten years ago, I gave myself the mission of making his work more credible to more analytically-inclined anglophone audiences, by updating his evolutionary anthropology and swapping out his all-too-Parisian, psychoanalytic, discourse on libidinal economy for experimental neuroscience. Contra Sokal and Bricmont, I wanted to show that continental philosophy has emerged alongside of and in constant dialogue with technology and the sciences. That means trying to engage with people who dismiss what I do out of hand, while also risking the alienation of existing colleagues, often over seemingly trivial issues, like my research students taking up scholarships envisaged for literature or wanting to be supervised by me while registered in the Philosophy department.

I’ve had some very positive experiences of acceptance among groups of philosophers, classicists, and addiction psychiatrists, who have eased the often quite tiring anxiety of disciplinary homelessness. At least, they remind me that the real issue is the surfeit of homeliness elsewhere: bastions of nostalgic disciplinary propriety who’d likely just criticize any outsider. Speaking to them might be impossible, but that’s exactly why, as Bernard would have said, we have to talk to them. Anything else is just feeding Balkanisation. It means I’ve had to work hard on my language, but that’s no bad thing.

Ironically, for a Stieglerian, I really hate the self-validating jargon of continental philosophy. I’ll draw on any disciplines I need to make the arguments that I want to make, and I rely on clarity and the conceptual rigour of philosophy to let me get away with it. If I fail and end up all over the place, so be it: there’s no dignity in mediocrity and playing it safe. My approach has nonetheless led to tensions elsewhere. The U.K.’s emphasis on research having non-academic “impact” is widely condemned for many credible reasons, but I’d insist that the core principle is sound.

Stiegler once remarked that Derrida’s “university without condition” was the least Derridean idea ever, and he was absolutely right. It’s not enough for researchers to retreat into fragmented communities where they are shielded from scrutiny by inaccessible language games, or where they can speak to each other without reference to anyone else. The ivory towers myth of hermetic, insulated, academia is garbage, but I do worry that colleagues withdraw into engrossing irrelevances as an antidote to the stresses of the outside world. Our species is detonating the planet and, instead of working to counter that, many of its cleverest members are burying themselves in labs and archives like junkies in a K-hole. We need to live with enough anxiety to keep us engaging with and not withdrawing from the rest of the world, but that presumably means less than we have at present.

Please describe how your work on the philosophy of addiction intersects with broader concerns with the philosophy of vitality and illness.

Much of it boils down, I suspect, to professional burnout—which links in turn to the cumulative impact of kidney failure, and by extension to vast amounts of time spent lying in bed, staring at screens. I’m a fairly vanilla fantasist at heart. Once, while teaching Rimbaud, I seduced myself with the idea that my diet of TV, Coca Cola, and smartphones was somehow equivalent to his pursuit of the excesses of the nineteenth century. But I’m equally very aware that these toxic screens have been therapeutic—and that, to the extent that it has forced me to pull back from the brink, illness has actually therefore been great for my own vitality. I wonder whether we shouldn’t all be granted the right to draw down on our pensions for a year or two of mid-career rehab, be it for parenting, calm, or just a change of scene.

I met Stiegler in 2008, at roughly the same time that I was diagnosed with PKD. These two histories go hand-in-hand. I was struck quite quickly by his phenomenal levels of stamina, which would frequently manifest in him still chomping at the bit while his audience lay exhausted on the floor. By about 2013, I was a part of his travelling entourage and, not long after, I realized that, for the sake of not boring the master, I’d given fifteen entirely different papers in his presence in little over a year and a half. It was completely unsustainable, though I managed to keep ploughing on until 2017, when I returned from Turkey and China and promptly collapsed. Due to a combination of Cytomegalovirus and the impact on my blood chemistry of an experimental kidney treatment, I dropped from 72 to 59kg (160 to 130lbs) in about a week and then spent several months in bed, but my dominant memory from the time was that I’d be happier to die with an unfinished monograph than from destroying myself for the sake of something that no-one will ever read. It made me much more circumspect about what I think is worth publishing, and I saw Stiegler in a new light, too—as someone for whom writing was very much a coping mechanism, a therapeutic addiction. I don’t think that changes the value of what he wrote, but it does explain why he often wrote as though talking principally to himself.

Anyway, a few of the papers I had given dealt with addiction, trying to legitimate Stiegler’s (under-substantiated) claims about the addictive, attention-destroying nature of our relationships with digital devices. The papers took me into the neuroscience and ecology of the dopamine system, which legitimated the argument that addiction is less a disease than a response to the kind of environmental perturbations thrown up by rapid technological change. That took me towards the theory of what I call “dopamining”: that we can read the history of capitalism as an intensifying process of manufacturing anxiolytic, habit-forming products, which take the edge off the perturbations that capitalism itself depends on creating.

Amidst all this, it became increasingly apparent that I kept reading about the same sets of illnesses: not just addiction and ADHD, but depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, among others. Catherine Malabou calls them the diseases of “the new wounded”—that is, of a neuroplastic brain forced to absorb stress to the point where it becomes “explosive”. They similarly figure for the Korean philosopher Byung-chul Han as the “infarctions” of a burned-out society; for the neuro-immunologist Edward Bullmore as the result of inflammation and scarring in the brain and the long-term detrimental effects of short-term reactions to stress; and for the psychologist Fred Previc as “hyperdopaminergic diseases,” where dysregulation of the dopamine system is produced by the cumulative pressures of contemporary living.

The unavoidable conclusion is that current modes of social organization are profoundly disabling us, and I have argued that this is fundamental to climate change and what I term the “limbic Capitalocene,” too. We cannot hope to save the planet unless we understand just how far our pathological levels of consumption are responses to the pathology of our artefactual, human environments: the demands placed on us, particularly in the West. by brutalizing cultures of work; by the exhaustions of always-on digital culture, and so on. Like all addicts, we are stuck in this bizarre paradox of clinging to a lifestyle that kills off our vitality, making us both ill and miserable.

Do you think that, despite appearances, mainstream philosophy—and even non-mainstream philosophy such as dominant strains of feminist philosophy—remains resistant to, if not hostile to, European philosophy and so-called Continental thinkers?

There’s a Derridean question of hospitality at the heart of all this: only by opening ourselves up to alterity and new forms of environmental stimulus can we sustain vitality, but the outside is also home to all kinds of threats of contagion. So, we lay down a decision about what to let in and what to keep out. At the moment, I think most of us are guilty are keeping too much out; of retreating into the narrowed milieus of what Georges Canguilhem, following Kurt Goldstein, termed the ultra-defensive “emergency mode” of the threatened organism. As I said before, however, that has more to do with contemporary stresses and the production-orientation of the neoliberal university than with any intrinsic properties of a given discipline. If you fear for the future of your department and there’s money for only one job, you aren’t going to waste it on an arguably non-philosopher philosopher.

There’s some really fascinating work emerging on the idea that the analytic-continental split was rooted in postwar journal politics and the jingoism of certain Oxford philosophers who wielded power over appointment committees, but we should remember just how much they engaged with it. I might not like Gilbert Ryle’s reading of Husserl and Heidegger, but it’s a testament to how seriously he took their challenge. That’s not true of, say, Daniel Dennett, who has said he accepts that deconstruction could teach him plenty—if only he could get through the deadly prose and the abusive hordes of his followers. The fault lies on both sides, but the perpetuation of the divide is unsurprising in the context of the hyperspecialised, overproductive, university, where we are incentivized to churn out endless articles on basically the same thing.

It’s not quite as simple as rubbishing the humanities, or this or that branch of philosophy, when so few have the time, space, freedom, or requirement to diversify their intellectual diet. Stiegler and I talk about “noodiversity”—a cultural-technological equivalent of biodiversity, which I also see as incorporating “neurodiversity,” or the different ways of thinking characteristic of the neurologically atypical, which needs to be cultivated and preserved just as much as its biological equivalent. We already know the costs of our noetic monoculture. Our political systems are restrained by a refusal to countenance new ideas, not to mention a disinclination to listen to science. Even when we do listen, research ascribes the U.K. government’s catastrophic manhandling of the Coronavirus pandemic to the narrowness of its scientific interlocutors—too much mathematical modelling and not enough sociology, to say nothing of all the other ignored disciplines…

So, my plea would be that everyone needs to read more widely, varying the sources of their environmental stimulus to loosen the hold of the neuronal circuits they merely reinforce with more of the same. But that means a deeper change in the structuring of the academic division of labour, a different approach to work, and so on.

Gerald, would you like to offer some additional remarks about what you’ve discussed in this interview or make some recommendations of materials that readers and listeners of the interview should seek out?

I have nothing non-cliched to say about what we can learn from engagements with disability, except to reiterate the alignment of philosophy with that endeavour. If philosophy serves any function nowadays, it is surely and most broadly to revisit received opinions from the standpoint of life in all its diversity. We’ve seen the profound effect on students of adding more women and people of colour to reading lists. It’s easy to say the same should be true of philosophers with disabilities, but that’s not always straightforward when a standard starting point of philosophy is for its writers to attempt to transcend corporeality.

Description of photo below: Wearing glasses, a surgical mask, and a hospital gown, Gerard is on dialysis. He displays his left forearm in which there is internal bleeding caused by dialysis needles that have penetrated veins too deeply.

Failing that, even just self-narrating to the point where students feel liberated to engage with their own health is a start. I learned a huge amount from over a decade with a man whose genius was inseparable from addiction, self-destruction, and ultimately, suicidal, manic depression, who saw our combined ill health as the condition of (im)possibility of working. Students tend to feel comfortable about opening up to me over their own personal or familial health issues and I’ve seen how valuable it can be for them to be guided towards researching and writing about their own experiences. On that note, I had hoped to write a little book on dialysis. I’ve been told by several nephrologists that they just don’t know a great deal about its phenomenology, not least because most people on it are past their prime. After nearly a year, I’ve been disappointed, however. I’ve regained lucidity and the sensation of being chilled from the inside is interesting, but there’s not really that much to say about sitting in a chair in four-hour chunks, mostly feeling desperate to pee.

I’ve included links to bits of my work throughout the interview. Anyone intrigued to read more about Stiegler could do worse than starting with my obituary of him in Radical Philosophy, before sampling his unusually autobiographical The Age of Disruption, or the translation of Bifurcate, forthcoming with the Open Humanities Press.

Gerald, thank you very much for your provocative remarks throughout this interview, especially your observations on the exclusionary character of definitions of philosophy and the variations of philosophical practice.

ADDENDUM: On the morning of February 9th, Gerald unexpectedly received a transplanted kidney.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Gerald Moore’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, March 17th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the seventieth 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.

The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here: https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/dialogues-on-disability/

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