Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-fourth 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 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 Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril (she/her/elle), the newest contributor to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, who recently submitted her a doctoral dissertation entitled, “Autonomy as a Systemic Virtue: A Spinozist Analysis of Autonomy and Shared Decision-making in Healthcare,” for the Ph.D. in philosophy at University of Aberdeen. Raised in the continental tradition and inhabiting an analytic world, Élaina’s research interests are varied and many, ranging from Spinozist metaphysics to Filipino philosophies of the self. She is currently writing “Cripping Power: Spinoza on Power, Freedom, and the Bodymind,” a chapter for the anthology in development entitled, Claiming the Canon: Philosophy’s Crip History, Sarah Gorman and Melinda Hall, eds., and will soon launch two podcasts: “Philosophy Casting Call”, an interview podcast spotlighting underrepresented philosophers, and “Bookshelf Remix” (co-hosted with Sophia Basaldua-Sun), a discussion podcast about books by historically marginalized authors.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Élaina!  When you were a child, you wanted to be an archaeologist. You eventually ended up in philosophy, but rather than an abandonment of childhood aspirations, you think that philosophy has enabled you to live out your childhood dreams. Please tell us about your background and how archaeology led to a life in philosophy, as well as how philosophy has fulfilled your childhood hopes.

I was lucky to be raised by a very inquisitive mother who encouraged me and all of my siblings to try to understand things from multiple different angles for fun. When I look back at my childhood, my most salient memories are of my mother making learning fun by modelling it, by indulging in her own pleasure when she discovered new ideas. When I was 10, long before I was aware of the imperialistic structure of archeology, I became fascinated by Egyptology and loved drawing connections between artifacts, language. symbols, religion, and social norms. I loved the idea of investigating human nature by studying the remnants of people’s rich internal lives. As I grew older and admitted to myself that I hated the idea of toiling in dusty digs, I was introduced to philosophical inquiry and found that it fed my desire for knowledge and exploration.

For both my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I went to a small, continentally-inclined university where students were encouraged to “spend some time with philosophers” and “journey” with them before settling on hard opinions of affinity or rejection. My first introduction to philosophy as a discipline was shaped by professors who told me that, if it was of interest to me, it was worth philosophising about. It was only later, when I moved to the U.K. for my Ph.D. and was evolving within a mostly analytical culture, whose vision of philosophy was formal argumentation and oriented towards puzzle solving, that I realised that my act of philosophising was more akin to an archeological practice of searching for artifacts and trying to reconstruct and understanding of human life.

For me, philosophising is an act of tangling and untangling, not necessarily systematising. When I was 9 years old, I asked my mother why humans couldn’t be like ants: seemingly content with working for their food, reproducing, and starting all over again. I wanted to account for my need to read books and play dress up. In a way, that same curiosity, the desire to “find the meaning in the mornings that I see” that Barbra Streisand sings about in Yentl, is what continues to spur on my practice. I do not approach the world as some approach a logic problem, but I still want to unpack it and understand it. I have never shied away from what is considered fuzzy or messy thinking because that is what interests me the most, even if I never reach a definitive answer.

I realise that this kind of intellectual pursuit can be quite stressful for some people who love order and systems. I don’t begrudge anyone that preference; I’m just invested in doing something else.  I understand the usefulness of categories, but I am not interested in them for their own sake and the systems that I try to uncover and understand often make things more, not less, complex. For this reason, I hesitate to list my specialisations, since all my most recent projects have involved aspects of a range of areas, including metaphysics, epistemology, fundamental ethics, applied ethics, political philosophy, and philosophical anthropology. As my identity as a philosopher has matured, I have found that I want to invest in contributing to what Kristie Dotson calls a “culture of praxis”. By this I mean that I hold my way of philosophising not as the only valid way, but rather as one valid way among many others, as a dynamic practice that is likely to evolve as I encounter new thinkers and ideas, a practice that has no pretension to explain the totality of human experience.

[Description of photo below: Élaina, who has short dark hair, is wearing a bright-coloured cardigan and looking playfully to her left, while standing in a library and holding up a hardcover copy of Aging in an Aging Society (to which she contributed) in one hand and a paperback copy of the book in the other hand.]

You now identify as disabled. But you have encountered significant institutional structures and barriers that, until recently, dissuaded you from doing so. How would you describe these obstacles and surmounting them?

Since my undergraduate studies, I have felt the normalised pressures of an academic schedule that does not account for asynchronous or atypical bodyminds; however, it was during my Ph.D. in the U.K., that I encountered the harsh reality of institutional barriers. In the U.K., there are no seminars at the doctoral level or even common rites of passage like comprehensive examinations to bind cohorts together. Postgraduate research (PGR) students are essentially in limbo between a student status and a faculty status without many of the benefits of either category.

For example, as a student, I was eligible for assistive services. However, the steps to ensure this access were humiliating and led to very little. I had to deal with a particularly condescending nurse to get my “certification of disability” paperwork—which, in itself, is a privilege because not everyone can get or wants to get a diagnosis—and when I met with the Disability Officer, I was told that they didn’t know what to do for a PGR student. All of the “accommodations” that they provided were geared towards assisted in-class note-taking and extended exam lengths, both of which were irrelevant to my program. I felt completely on my own.

As for my place as a quasi-staff member, I had the freedom to organise my time but was also expected to contribute to the life of the department, something that was often difficult because of the timings of communal events. When I think of it now, when virtual communication has become the norm in the society in which I live, I realize that I would have benefitted so much if virtual meetings and talk series had been integrated as part of department life. I didn’t have classes, but I had meetings and talk series. I think that I would have attended more events if at least some of them had been held virtually, because I often had no spoons to make it to campus at the end of the day, let alone to socialise and network at the pub afterwards. I was familiar with literature on how this kind of para-labour in academia disproportionately affects women with children; however, I didn’t think it applied to me as a disabled person as well, until I experienced it.

When value is bestowed to those who “show up,” and when taking that extra hour to talk to the guest speaker over a beer is what helps your career, making those events inaccessible creates a barrier for disabled philosophers. This is something that I have raised with my current school and I hope that the status quo will change post-pandemic.

Otherwise, I experienced issues linked to my productive timeline over which neither I nor my supervisor nor my department had much power—extensions are limited for foreign students who depend on a visa. I would not say that I “overcame” that barrier; I just adapted to it the best that I could. To be clear, I could not have abided by the hard deadline for submission without the emotional, physical, and financial support of my employed partner. I had the privilege to devote every moment not overtaken by brain fog or pain to writing my thesis. I want to acknowledge that this is not possible for everyone. For the first two years of my Ph.D., I worked part time and insisted that I pay my share of the rent. But that proved to be completely untenable. So, my partner and I decided that he would support me for the rest of my studies. I think this is a reality that is not often addressed in grad school and is not discussed at all in relation to disabled students: drive only gets you so far. No matter how passionate or disciplined you are, completing a Ph.D. program takes a tremendous amount of support.

Élaina, like many disabled people, you have encountered a host of assumptions about what disabled people look like. Your appearance runs counter to these assumptions. For this reason, you have struggled to find a sense of belonging. Please describe these struggles and how you have reconciled yourself with them.

I was 10 years old when I was first diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and I spent the better part of my teen years in great physical pain that affected my mobility and my energy levels. As I entered university, I had learned to mostly manage the pain and had thoroughly thrown myself into my studies, believing that, if my body was “broken”, then I would put my value in my mind, that is, in the type of intellectual “excellence” that society promotes. I knew that I was sick, but I never once thought of myself as disabled.

Looking back now, I was engaging in very self-destructive behaviour that went unnoticed because being an overachiever is still very valued in our society. I was doing my best to take the most classes, work part-time during school and full time during the summer, volunteering, and playing an instrument, all in an attempt to prove myself. This behaviour is a trait of what disabled people refer to as the “supercrip”: that is, someone who spends a lot of energy trying to “compensate” for their disability or prove to the world that they are driven and valuable. Because the alternative is to be branded (and to self-identify) as lazy.

I was terrified that I would be perceived as lazy. I knew my body could not keep up, but I wanted to show everyone that I could contribute with my mind according to a very specific criteria of productivity. Eventually, however, I could no longer maintain the false separation between body and mind; and I pushed myself into a dark place. I had to stop school, work, and volunteering, which propulsed me into one of the worst mental health periods of my life. I was sure that the moment that I stopped rushing, I would fall into an abyss.

Of course, I didn’t. I kept on living, outside of the world of productivity and not yet within disability communities because I did not yet feel that I belonged there. Like most people in my society, I grew up identifying “disability” with external markers like wheelchairs and guide dogs. I had also internalised that it was morally wrong to complain when other people “had it worse”. I had to learn, as I grew up and began to see the world in more nuance, that taking up space doesn’t have to be violent and that I could exist as myself, while simultaneously working to evolve in solidarity with others who have different experiences as disabled people.

When I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME/CFS, I was so relieved to have a medically and, by extension, societally sanctioned marker that I wasn’t making up my pain. Even though research on ME is very new in the lifespan of modern science, and despite the fact that the diagnosis is still derided by much of the medical community—a fact that, in itself, is informed by a history of misogyny in medical practice because about three-quarters of the people diagnosed with ME are cis women or AFAB folks—I held on to the label for dear life because it meant that I had a rallying cry. As many people with non-apparent disabilities can attest, often having a diagnosis gives us ammunition when we engage with medical professionals or ask for accommodations in our workplace. Too often, accommodations are only possible with a diagnosis, which is another issue that we could talk about. For me, identifying as someone with ME also allowed me to reach out to communities online of fellow people with that diagnosis, which gave me access to more information and support.

Not being easily identified as disabled by my peers and colleagues also muddies the water when it comes to creating a sense of belonging, because we live in a society that stigmatises opting out of meetings or conferences, interpreting such opting out as, at best, a coldness and unwillingness to socialise, and, at worst, an outright shirking of our responsibilities. A downside of my trying my best not to appear “sick” in professional spaces—for example, by resting at home as much as I can, away from the public sphere—is that it makes it difficult to opt out of group activities without feeling the need to justify myself. This, then, brings us to the question about the decision to disclose or not to disclose. Personally, I have found the latter option to be much more fruitful in my case, but then I get very anxious that I will be labelled a “complainer”. It’s very complicated.

This experience made me reflect on the harmful professional practices that I was perpetuating in my own teaching. The professors who made the most significant impressions on me were always full of “tough love” and I felt that, as a young tutor, only a few years older than my students, it was better (and safer) to stray on the side of the strict: be the “no extensions”, and definitely “no pity for those who didn’t do the readings” type of educator. I think that it’s fairly common for new teachers to emulate their mentors; but, as I found my own rhythm and responded to the human beings in front of me, I realised that I could use my position of relative power to make my classroom more accessible.

For example, I started asking students for their preferred pronouns and sharing my own; I explained some of my coping tactics—such as sitting down to manage my pain or rephrasing multiple times when my brain fog was intense—so that my students wouldn’t be surprised by this behaviour and to normalise the fact of tending to access needs; when teaching went online, I encouraged everyone to participate vocally and through the chat. A few students reached out to me to mention that these small adjustments have made a huge difference in how they engaged with the material and to their university experience in general, which is all that I could ask for. I am still learning and making mistakes, but I can confidently say that my openness about my identity as a disabled philosopher has had a positive impact on both my self-confidence and for the students in my classes.

You are actively engaged in research that draws upon a variety of areas of specialization in philosophy. Please describe your research and other projects, including the topic of your recently submitted dissertation.

During my undergraduate degree, a professor once told me that I was a “monster according to Aristotle”, which basically means a hybrid creature that is unique and cannot be reproduced. I chose to take that as a compliment as it really matches my interests in philosophy. Being “raised” in a continental tradition, I was drawn to Baruch Spinoza, a disabled seventeen-century heretical Sephardic Portuguese-Dutch Jew, who, in true rock star fashion, rejected Cartesian dualism and told his readers to take human affects seriously. There is no other way to describe my discovery of Spinoza than as my philosophical crush. At 18, I became completely obsessed and my love of his holistic philosophy, encompassing and intertwining metaphysics, epistemology, politics, and ethics in a way that I wasn’t finding in the more segregated tradition of contemporary philosophy, a love that survived my master’s detour via a strange Kant.

When I started my Ph.D., I thought that I would produce a more politically-inclined thesis on Spinoza, but I discovered shared decision-making theory and I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I situate my research as an extension of political philosophy because it focuses on an area of the human experience where the private and the public explicitly converge, where the question of the Good Life arises in both the individual and the societal sense.

It is so normal for me to discuss contemporary biomedical ethics policies and Spinoza together that I sometimes forget that it is not an obvious association for everyone. But this is exactly what interests me. Through my research, I have become invested in feminist philosophy, in general, and in feminist accounts of relational autonomy, in particular. So, I carry all these different perspectives and vocabularies with me when I address bioethical issues. Having felt like an outsider for my entire academic career, as a woman, as a disabled person, as a hapa—that is, as a half-Asian—and as a non-confrontational thinker fond of eclectic methodologies, I feel the most comfortable approaching topics of interest from the left field.

That is a big reason why I decided to start a podcast: Philosophy Casting Call. After submitting my thesis, I was full of creative energy and wanted to bring together my love of podcasts as a medium and my enthusiasm for philosophy. Philosophy Casting Call is an interview podcast in which I interview people—regardless of their employment status or their job title—who philosophise and are underrepresented in academic philosophy, including disabled philosophers, Black, Indigenous, and philosophers of colour, LGBTQIA+ philosophers, and women philosophers.

I choose my guests because I want to learn more about their work and believe that it should be shared with more people as a testament that diversity in philosophy is already here and that we need to amplify it. Basically, I realised that the scholars with whom I interact and who have most shaped me, both as a philosopher and generally as a person who is hungry for knowledge, may not be famous or well-known within the discipline, but they are still there, busy working. I just wanted to be a part of broadcasting that work.

The podcast officially launches on May 31, but the trailer for it is available now on Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher, if you and readers and listeners of this interview want to get a taste of what is to come on it and to follow it. A transcript is provided for the trailer and transcripts will be provided at my website for all the episodes.

What has been your general experience with accessibility for students and faculty at Aberdeen? Have you encountered any resistance to it?

I have to say that the faculty in the philosophy department have been very receptive to my suggestions and I have been given complete leeway when it comes to making adjustments to my teaching within my tutorials, or small-group teaching. However, I had to train myself in inclusive pedagogy, for the most part, and, other than providing scribes and exemptions on grammar and spelling, I am unaware of any mandated accessibility features across the board that must be implemented by every lecturer and tutor.

The most resistance that I have encountered has come from fellow TAs on Twitter. There seems to be a recalcitrant discourse about the evils of accommodations like extensions and alternative assignments, where the sin committed is against the “standards of education”. I think that it is very dangerous to frame discussions about granting access to education as a threat to the quality of education. What does that even mean anyway? As someone who is very passionate about learning and about education, I tend to view disciplinary standards at the periphery of what is actually at play.

For example, when I teach philosophy to an undergraduate cohort, I am aware that very few of the students in the class will continue in a philosophy program, and even the ones who do continue will develop their own way of philosophising that may or may not be comparable to my practice. As a result, I need to think of educational virtues in a much broader sense and that sense is not invalidated because a student has different access needs. Maybe the student who does not perform in essay-writing will not pursue a degree in philosophy, where argumentative writing is currently mandatory; that does not mean that this student will not benefit from fulfilling an alternative assignment and participating fully in the class. But maybe that student will fall in love with philosophy and go on to shape a different version of academic philosophy that does not see the written word as the superior form of philosophising. As an individual teacher, I do not see into the future, but it is my job to open doors, not close them.

The people who bemoan granting extensions also believe that we should give physical space in the classroom to wheelchair users—or, as they put it, to “wheelchairs,” a reification that is problematic in its own right. To me, this indicates a very limited understanding of access, an understanding according to which getting bodies in a room where the teaching happens is enough. I believe it is my job as an educator to challenge that view and to engage in a dynamic reflection on what it means to educate and what the purpose of our educational spaces, both material and virtual, is and should be.

Élaina, what would you like to say in closing this interview? Is there anything that we’ve discussed that you would like to expand upon? Would you like to recommend some resources of any kind about something that you’ve discussed in this interview?

I would like you to thank you for inviting me to enter into dialogue with you. I am always excited to discuss philosophy with all those that will allow it, let alone with activist philosophers such as yourself. As I mentioned, you can find and follow my philosophy podcast here and on Twitter @philoccpod. You can also find out more about me and my publications on my website www.elainagauthiermamaril.com and Twitter @ElainaGMamaril and stay tuned for my other podcast, Bookshelf Remix, in which Sophia Basaldua-Sun and I take a deep dive into popular fiction written my marginalised and underrepresented authors using our nerdy scholarly reading techniques.

Élaina, thank you so much for creating this wonderful interview with me. Your passion for philosophical inquiry shone through in your responses to my queries. I look forward to your podcasts. Good luck with them!

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril’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, June17th for the seventy-fifth 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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