Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Jennifer Scuro

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-second 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 exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy 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 Jennifer Scuro. Jennifer (she/her) is the author of The Pregnancy ≠ Childbearing Project: A Phenomenology of Miscarriage (Rowman and Littlefield International, Feb. 2017) and Addressing Ableism: Philosophical Questions via Disability Studies (Lexington Books, Oct. 2017). She recently published a chapter in Representing Abortion (R.A. Hurst, ed., Routledge, 2020) entitled, “‘What you do hurts all of us!’: When Women Confront Women Through Prolife Rhetoric,” and is at work on “The Neuroqueerness of Anna Maria van Schurman,” a chapter for the anthology in development entitled, Claiming the Canon: Philosophy’s Crip History, (John Altmann and Melinda Hall, eds.). Jennifer currently teaches Disability Studies as Visiting Faculty at Miami University of Ohio.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Jennifer! You began your postsecondary education as a fine arts major and philosophy minor undergraduate student. You then did graduate degrees in philosophy. Please fill in the details about your background and explain why you chose to both do graduate work in philosophy and pursue a career in the field.

Thank you, Shelley! I want to acknowledge how important this series is for the field and how very grateful and humbled I am to be invited to participate in it. I am working and living on the land originally of the Lanape people, sometimes also called the Lenni-Lenapi. Today, the Lanape live in Wisconsin, Delaware, and Oklahoma in the United States, as well as in Ontario, Canada.

I am a first-generation college student and the oldest child in my immediate family, one of three sisters. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, on the south shore where many working-class families were the first, second, and third generations of Ellis Island immigrants.

My undergraduate experience was typical of the Vincentian mission of St. John’s University in Queen’s, New York, the college that I attended, namely, the mission “to provide an intellectual and moral education to the youth of the city.” The liberal arts curriculum required three courses in theology and three in philosophy. So, although I first majored in psychology then later in fine art, by the time I got to take my second philosophy course in Ethics, reading and studying philosophy became an oasis against the pressure for me to be compliant and pretty, only educated enough to be marriable and have children.

[Description of image below: Self-Portrait (1994), coloured pencil on paper. The centre of the illustration includes a pencil portrait of a woman with dark hair, pulled back, who is sitting on a chair, wearing large glasses, and staring forward. She is seated in a light, almost abstract background vaguely resembling a kitchen.]

Sculpting and painting was such a personal endeavor. In undergrad, I was one of only two women studying philosophy among a healthy number of seminarians. I have fond memories of painting, drawing, and debating the existence of God alongside of non-philosophers who would become my lifelong friends. I’m thinking of my friend Lawrence Waldron, also a polymath, an accomplished painter, writer, academic, and novelist, and how now, as we age, it was an extraordinary effort to establish ourselves in academia. I knew that I wanted to teach at the college level, but the vocation to teach was for philosophy and not art. 

He and I would later come back to St. John’s to teach as adjunct faculty, a wish that I had when I planned for graduate school. These relationships are fundamental to who I am today and these teaching opportunities and mentorship, along with adjunct teaching at Fordham University, Lincoln Center, and Pace University, later validated and grounded me in the profession. The field of philosophy was not welcoming to me, but the work was so satisfying, despite the imposter syndrome and insecurities that I had as (mostly) self-educated. I instead made myself the welcoming committee for others, while embracing the fact that I was a better artist than philosopher, relative to what I could do and liked to do. As I struggled through my graduate career, it was my art practice that became a life-affirming resource for me to persist and pursue philosophy proper as my specialization.

My Master’s degree in Philosophy is from Boston College and, only for my dear friends, Devonya Havis and Maeve O’Donovan, could I imagine myself one day with a Ph.D. and working as a tenured academic. We dubbed ourselves the “trifecta,” now expanded to the “quadfecta” to include Desirée Melton, so that, even now, I am held in good company, despite no longer working in academic philosophy. I can easily say that my friendship with them, especially over the past year, has saved my life.

[Description of image below: Four draft paintings on canvas, The Quadfecta. Top left: Maeve O’Donovan; top right: Desirée Melton; bottom left: Devonya Havis; bottom right: Artist self-portrait. Each painting is a portrait sketch in blue and black watercolor and ink, a work in progress, with text in the background framing each face.]

My Ph.D. is from The New School, and I was lucky to be there when Jacques Derrida and Charles Taylor taught seminars as visiting faculty. It was a time during which there was much faculty change-over and a large number of Ph.D. students graduated from the department at the same time as I did in 2005. My dissertation was on Levinasian phenomenology and defending an idea of an ethical history after the Holocaust. Although my dissertation director told me that he was “over” Levinas, I was not. I still write and publish with Levinas in my periphery, though I am not as beholden to his work as I used to be. Even in my art practices, I still reflect the impact of his theory on me: the idea of the face-to-face relation, the work of ethical substitution or the “one-for-the-other,” and, as Derrida writes about Levinas in his Adieu, the idea that I work for “small goodnesses” offered to a world to which I will “not return.”

How has your art practice informed your philosophical work, that is, how has it informed your teaching in philosophy and your research?

My art practice had been dormant for the many years that I worked on the tenure-track through to my promotion to Associate Professor.  It was my experience with pregnancy and miscarriage and narrating it through imagery for me to think myself back into artmaking, only once these experiences were far enough in the rear-view mirror to appear to me as “snapshot” memories and not pure trauma. I had already shelved the unpublished and rejected phenomenological work that I had written right after my miscarriages five years earlier. A couple of my students were doing an independent study, co-drafting a graphic novel, and when they showed me their process, it was enough to inspire me to use it as a medium, and I do credit them for that. Although I would have not considered myself a graphic novelist, an editor at Rowman and Littlefield supported and advocated for this project as a publication, a first for the publisher. 

In the last five years or so, I started to do portraiture again. I always found the work of Adrian Piper extremely influential on my dual-minded academic style: that I could be both competent philosopher and productive artist. As my career in philosophy came to an abrupt halt with the closure in 2019 of the college in which I was tenured (I write in detail about that experience here), I started to do a number of series of works painting my close friends or women and thinkers that I admired and respected. This was risky work for me; I was testing the limits of my skill set for sure, but the outcomes were quite rewarding.

[Description of image below: Six different portrait paintings of varying media, each portrait image includes text. Top left: Becca Longtin; top right: Tazmin Haque Uddin; middle left: Marjorie Hooven; middle right: Michelle Jammes; bottom left: Falguni Sheth; bottom right: Lydia X.Z. Brown.]

The most recent project which has been the closest to a satisfying substitution for philosophy has been my sculpture series, Intellectual Inheritance. Unemployed, no teaching, applying for and being rejected from so many jobs, in the middle of a pandemic, parenting and grappling with PTSD and depression, I started to sculpt in terracotta—no access to a kiln, no idea if the work would be any good—and surprised myself. I, again, decided to create company when I felt most alienated, now having a working set of figures, from Simone de Beauvoir to Gayatri Spivak to Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler to Anita Silvers, Angela Davis and bell hooks. Nothing more delightful than holding their “faces,” sculpting them as aged, noble women, having them look at me with stern judgment (and this last part brings me much joy).

[Description of image below: Photo collage of six different portrait sculptures in various stages of development, some in terracotta and some in white clay, photographed before they were completed. Top left: Judith Butler; top middle: Hannah Arendt; top right: Gayatri Spivak; bottom left: Anita Silvers; bottom middle: Simone de Beauvoir; bottom right: Gloria Anzaldúa.]

Of late, Riva Lehrer’s work in narrative portraiture—and the recent publication of her memoir—has been a really important influence on me. Her work reminds me that through the work of art we can remake the world and reverse its dismembering mechanisms so that it could be habitable and hopeful. She figures large in my Disability Studies courses now as instruction for me and as an academic aesthetic for my students. In this way, these works, in particular, have been the only equal to how teaching philosophy used to be for me, as an endless source of energy and invigoration.

As you’ve indicated, Jennifer, you have years of teaching experience; yet you are only precariously employed. Please tell our readers and listeners more about the circumstances surrounding your current situation and how you think ableism and ageism have conditioned it.

When the College of New Rochelle closed due to mismanagement and malfeasance, I was, despite teaching a 4/4 load and having never taken a sabbatical, at the height of my career. I had an academic book on Marx and a novel in the works, I was (still am) on the governing board of the Cultural Studies Association, but there were no comparable opportunities available. I was not in a position to “market” myself at that stage of my career, and, despite my qualifications and experience, was out of work. And, as I was told by the unemployment officer, “once you are out of work for a while, you are not attractive to employers.” There is a significant gap too in moving into non-academic work, even educational administration, or being considered for work at the Assistant level, despite having been tenured once before.  It felt very much like the field had no use for me; and it was hard not to let that leave me on the mat. I know my age has very much to do with it as well; but, as always with institutional and cultural biases, it is hard to identify, much less resist or confront and address.

Then, the next year, we all went into lockdown. I was honestly just grateful to keep my family safe; but, I was also witness to members of my extended family getting sick and even dying of COVID-19. My care community shrunk quickly and painfully, yet I was valuable to those who knew me and could remind me of myself when I felt most adrift.  When you are the primary caretaker of others, the toll it takes is slow and sneaky, much like the proverbial frog in the pot.

Teaching Disability Studies, co-designing a Capstone Seminar with my colleague, Sara María Acevedo, has also given me insight into how much ableism is “baked into the bread” of academia. So many departments are finding themselves having to prove their worth to administration, especially here in the United States; yet, seeing students find this work on disability rewarding and important, as well as, most importantly, seeing them develop tools for self-advocacy and their own intellectual agency, has been quite exciting.

Your book on ableism was, in some respects, directed at a wider audience than philosophers alone, drawing upon the work of disability theorists and activists who are not philosophers. Nevertheless, the book offers insights into how philosophy, as a discipline, is structured through ableism and reproduces it. Can you give readers and listeners of this interview a summary of the book, including what you regard as the primary ways in which philosophy is ableist and how these forms of ableism can be addressed?

Addressing Ableism was my attempt to map “the scale and scope of ableism” in which I narrate an arc of how complex it is to identify, resist and—the most difficult labor—to engage in strategies to confront ableist attitudes, affections, structures, and futures. In the book, I move from ordinary encounters of ableism to how ableism can be affectively transferred in diagnoses, then I include a dialogue on intersectionality with Devonya Havis and Lydia X.Z. Brown. I regard this conversation as the gem of the manuscript and, as already mentioned here, I have since portrait-painted both of them, out of deep love and gratitude. The rest of the manuscript is devoted to a more theoretical approach to ableism in which I discuss precariousness and the political manipulations of precarity.

Addressing precarity is essential for understanding the fully invisible operations of ableism because both precarity and ableism are products of neoliberalism, an economy that operates as if it is “better to be dead than disabled.” I then apply this discussion of precarity to a concept of prosthesis, articulating an idea of “prosthetic effect” in which I suggest all tools ought to be conceived as prosthetic and all prosthetics are tools. I subsequently expanded on this idea in an unpublished paper that is available here. I end Addressing Ableism with the question of a non-ableist future and, if I were to revise this question today, I would ask about defending the labors and investments of an anti-ableist future as the minimum for laying claim to real-world disability justice.

As I wrote the book, ableism still came up as a misspelling. While there is significant, rigorous, and even exemplary progress with respect to critical work on disability made in other fields and disciplines, there are only a few of us philosophers writing philosophically about ableism as an academic priority, as essential to our academic agenda. Even when philosophers are discussing disability, it is often still a device to their working out of theory, rendered a token of inclusive scholarship. When departments are looking for new faculty, literacy in philosophy of disability is not requested, not desired.

When the job rejections came in stating, “you have qualifications similar to other faculty in our department,” I had to laugh because that is how little general professional regard there is in the discipline for those of us who work to broaden the interdisciplinarity of philosophy, who are deeply committed to the rigor and defense of the field among the other academic professions, yet could truly, transgressively, change the boundaries of the field for the better. I have found more welcome in Disability Studies, Cultural Studies, and the Public Philosophy communities. So, I’m just existentially “resting” with this for a while instead of exhausting myself trying to prove my worth to those who have status in the field and find me and my work irrelevant.

Jennifer, you’ve now referred to public philosophy communities. I know that you engage in a variety of activities that could be placed in the category of public philosophy. Please describe the sorts of public philosophy that you have done with respect to disability, race, gender, and other apparatuses of power.

Most recently, Amy Gaeta, Jillian Weise, and I have been collaborating on a “cripfont” project in which we have been thinking about reframing fonts and typeface so that we can play with the way font carries mood, engaging in subversiveness against the commercial neutrality of Helvetica or academic condescension of Times New Roman. We are definitely influenced by Aimi Hamraie and Kelly Fritch’s “Crip Technoscience Manifesto.” We are really having fun experimenting with design that is not just about accessibility. Our experimenting is rather engaging in design that is “for crips, by crips.”

I have been doing sets of videos that make philosophy and its insights useful to a broader, non-academic audience. One video short that I did for the Public Philosophy Network focuses on helpfulness and helplessness. In this video, I argue that it is important to recognize that helplessness is a kind of suffering, especially in the way that the pandemic has amplified a forced helplessness even for those in the best position to “help.” I also did a talk on building care communities as part of the Brooklyn Public Philosophers series, BPL Presents: Philosophy in the Library. In this talk, I expand on the way in which “crip” time—a term best defined by Ellen Samuels here—is, in the context of care, both synchronous and diachronous, using Levinas’s ethical metaphysics. Simply stated, crip time is regular and cyclic, as in the need for sleep and medication; but it is also interrupted and full of novel urgencies, as in a new onset of symptoms or the need for a hospital stay. This talk is the basis of work that I’m drafting into a chapter for an anthology of philosophers writing on COVID-19, which exemplifies what I now like best about doing philosophy—converting it into a toolkit for navigating ethically complex and politically contentious experiences.   

I’m also working on a set of video interviews with my friend, Monica Vilhauer, founder of Curious Soul Philosophy, in which we, in the spirit of good friendship, discuss practical philosophy, public philosophy, philosophical counseling (of which she is certified), and how philosophy can be useful for improving the quality of one’s life. This project is still in fairly early development, but I am enjoying the process of making these discussions available for future public use.

With what remarks would you like to end this interview, Jennifer?

I think that I really want to end this interview with a real-time comment on where I am right now, in the middle of a pandemic, thinking about internalized ableism and Western somatophobia. De-shaming is such an important and polyvocal strategy to reversing privatized, idiomatic bodily experience of illness and disability, trauma and care. Over the past six months, I have been struggling with pain and bleeding, anemia, and fatigue and so, will be getting hysterectomy surgery at the end of the month. There have been so many ways in which this experience has been such a reduction in my basic quality of life; at the same time, I am privileged that I have access to care because my spouse is unionized and so the access to this care is subsidized. Despite how difficult this situation and experience have been, I am as safe and loved as anyone ought to be.

Part of this experience included hemorrhaging in public and the need to be taken by ambulance to a hospital emergency room, where I was not treated as credible by doctors, including my own doctor. I’ve been fat-shamed and infantilized, despite my age, despite my education, and only after I got an MRI that confirmed my condition, was I treated as a fairly urgent case. I don’t think that it is an accident, especially with my publication record, that I keep thinking about how I’m going to flip the script on these experiences and turn them into an empowering and liberatory narrative. Much like my art practice, it is out of a kind of survivorship that I do not leave these experiences unaccounted for, but rather as deeply affecting me and in need of a working vocabulary.

I’ve worked hard to “crip” this experience so that I am fearlessly honest and can write about my “leaky” body—as Samuels states it, “Crip time is writing time.” I’ve had to wear adult diapers so that I can function day to day and even go out in public, but instead of feeling shamed by this, I actually felt freed up once I accepted it. And although my situation is temporary, I realized that there is a celebratory relief in accessing the tools and the intimacy of care that I need without having to constantly throw my sense of self-worth into question.

And, again, I am really embodying the affective power of prosthetic effect.  When I am indifferent to the tools that I need to be at home in the world, that I can edit and adjust my participation and labor as I need, as I can open myself up to risk, I can also en-member myself from ableist dismemberments as joyful, creative, and empowered, even if it means that I need to take more time to rest, to repair, giving myself time to reimagine what’s next.  As Alison Kafer states it in Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013), “In imagining more accessible futures, I am yearning for an elsewhere—and, perhaps, ‘elsewhen’—in which disability is understood otherwise: as political, as valuable, as integral.”

Jennifer, thank you for your very moving and provocative remarks throughout our interview. I hope that our readers and listeners will appreciate their depth and significance.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Jennifer Scuro’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 21st for the sixth-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.

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