Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Will Conway

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-sixth 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. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states.

My guest today is Will Conway. Will is a M.A. student in philosophy at Duquesne University. He is also a co-host of the philosophy podcast, Acid Horizon, and has a blog, RevoltingBodies, where he writes about philosophy, biopolitics, and disability.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Will! We met when you and your team invited me on your podcast, Acid Horizon. Why don’t we begin this interview on that note? Please tell us about the Acid Horizon podcast, your motivation to produce it, the sorts of topics your episodes cover, and anything else you want us to know about it.

It is a lovely note to start on! Acid Horizon is a project that is dedicated to, among other things, breaking down political philosophy, metaphysics, and sometimes even theoretical and science fiction. Our goal, really, is to open avenues of dialogue that folks interested in theory may not be actively pursuing. This would include Guattarian treatments of ecology, Foucauldian analyses of disability, or, more recently, new philosophically rigorous approaches to anarchism. It is as much a space for us to expose ourselves to new frameworks and movements as it is a platform for us to discuss our work.

Acid Horizon was a by-product of the pandemic that, like so many projects, took form over the last year. Craig, our host, and a teacher who works with underserved communities and incarcerated individuals, met Matt Lowrey, a political science student studying radical theories of democracy at Leeds University, and me, through a Deleuze and Guattari reading group. It seemed obvious that we had comparable interests and a certain set of skills pertaining to public speaking. Later, Adam Jones, a remarkable talent studying Hegel and Stirner at The Center for Research in Modern European Philosophy joined us and it rounded out the continental composition of the program. We all come at these texts and discussions from different perspectives, as we have different philosophical backgrounds, but our final commitments are rather uniform. I think this variety, as it pertains to both academic background and practical experience, is quite valuable to the show as a whole. For example, one of my favorite episodes is, still, our first. In it, we discussed the often-cited conversation between Deleuze and Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power”. We also interviewed Craig about his experience working with incarcerated students. It gave a real practical weight to the project. Like all philosophical work, it became clear that the stakes surrounding these discussions were not artificial.

Regarding my motivations for working with Acid Horizon, I would have to say it’s the responses that we sometimes receive to the show. The simple possibility that there are folks who have taken an interest in, for example, your work with Foucault or Catherine Malabou’s work on neuroplasticity after listening is remarkable. If even just one person is exposed to a line of inquiry, a concept, or a movement that they otherwise had not considered or to which they otherwise had not been exposed, I think that’s more than enough. At this point, I would also be remiss to not mention that Craig, Matt, and Adam are among my closest friends. It is rather hackneyed to say this, but I truly do learn from them everyday. I cannot imagine where I would be without them. Acid Horizon and everyone involved in it mean the world to me.

Will, I know that you are in the M.A. philosophy program at Dusquesne, that we share a vital interest in Foucault’s work, and that you hesitate to refer to yourself as a philosopher. Yet I know little else about you. Please tell us about your educational background and what led you to do graduate work in philosophy.

I imagine that every time students and scholars answer the question about how they ended up where they are, the answer changes. Different events in one’s academic life fade in and out of importance. I am sure there are things that were absolutely instrumental in my philosophical journey that I have already completely forgotten. Nevertheless, I will do my best to give an account of myself.

I hesitate to refer to myself as a philosopher for a few reasons, but the primary reason is that I do not want to arrogate that authority on epistemology, phenomenology, etc. I would rather my engagements with philosophy be limited to the moments where I need to raid a text for this or that notion, conceptual persona, or framework and then retreat to positions where I feel comfortable, which are always in the realm of the political. Of course, all of philosophy is itself steeped in the political. My reluctance to identify as a philosopher may be an insufficiency in my outlook as a student and researcher. Also, on those grounds, my hesitancy may bite back against some positions that I hold, as well as provide ableists in philosophy and ableism in some philosophical movements and tendencies cover that they otherwise would not have.

What led me to graduate school is probably that same desire to rummage through the philosophical canon. I also just fundamentally believe that disability is something that is always haunting the philosophy of the body, the subject, and experience. It is a ghost in the mainframe of the machine. So, in a sense, my cerebral palsy brought me to philosophy, as I think a lot of the issues regarding disability and the unified liberal subject have their “origins” (if one could say such a thing) there.

But it is always also a matter of circumstance. I had a wonderful mentor in undergrad who, when I showed an interest in Deleuze, Marx, Foucault, and Sartre, pushed me to really pursue it. I eventually opted to write and defend an undergraduate thesis, which no student in the history of my university had done before. My department and university were receptive to the idea. My undergrad thesis was on Foucault’s notion of the docile body and how it might interact with the history of philosophy, particularly epistemology and ethics. Some of the research that I did for the thesis still manages to float to the surface of my current work, although I am sure there is plenty of scholarly work in it that I would hesitate to stand by now. Writing the undergraduate thesis forced me learn how to manage large research projects, which I am sure benefited me moving forward. I was fortunate to have some university professors who really took an interest in my work.

Had I not had such mentors around me, guiding me, I probably would not be doing any of this work. In the academy, for better and certainly for worse, it often comes down to who you meet and know. In fact, it was an undergraduate professor of mine who made me aware of your work beyond Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. She told me about Dialogues on Disability and suggested that I reach out to you. Of course, my reply was that I was no philosopher. And yet, here we are. Maybe one day I’ll be comfortable with such a descriptor.

[Description of image below: Photo of Will and two students in a university office. Will, whose hands and forearms are in motion, is sitting on a desk and explaining something to the students in preparation for a collegiate debate tournament. The students, who sit side-by-side at another desk with paper in front of them and pen in hand, take notes as Will speaks. A photo of Foucault and the word POWER are printed on the front of Will’s t-shirt. ]

As we’ve both now indicated, your research interests revolve around Foucault, in particular his ideas of normalization and biopolitics. How would you explain this research and your fascination with Foucault’s work?

If I could succinctly describe the motivation for Foucault’s work, which spans across multiple disciplines and whose focus shifts throughout his career, I would say that it is to locate subjugated knowledges, minor histories, and unexamined figures and to turn them into an insurgent force against established knowledge. I believe this emphasis on the marginal and marginalized is the primary strain that runs through all his work.

Some of my recent fascinations with Foucault are those moments of combat and escape; those people and places that, for a moment, challenge the grasp of dominant power. Whether it be the figure of the vagabond that one finds in The Punitive Society, the abnormal child of Abnormal with its incorrigible and “anarchical” instinct that threatens the cohesive unity of the educational institution, or the women diagnosed with hysteria in the 19th century who directly challenged psychiatric power, there are people and moments that burst through in Foucault’s work with a rather ephemeral insurrectionary force. In some ways, this sort of entry may be a literary interpretation that I am after, but it has been illuminating to see which individuals, of both individuals with immense power and individuals subjected to it, Foucault privileges in his analysis. For example, in Psychiatric Power, his lectures at The Collège de France in 1973, Foucault posits that it may have been the institutional targeting of abnormal and disabled children that served as the catalyst for the generalization of psychiatry across society.

I also want to re-analyze some of the later works of Foucault to correct some interpretations that treat Foucault’s final years as a standard “ethical turn,” treating this latter work instead as a necessary extension to his technological archeology. What I believe one finds is that the struggle persists. Foucault is now locating it elsewhere. The ethical itself becomes a domain where a battle has taken place. I think your brief engagement with this issue regarding Foucault’s turn to the subject articulates this well. I do not think, for example, Foucault’s treatment of dietetics in the second volume of the History of Sexuality turns away from the importance of the anatomo-political and biopolitical or that his investigation of the figure of the cynic is a major divergence from the model of civil war.

Foucault is often depicted, by Habermas and others, as providing a dead-end in his analytic of power. Some authors even go as far as saying that he forecloses on revolutionary action itself. I think that such assertions could not be further from the truth. You know, as well as any scholar, that, at times, there seems to be an entire academic sub-field dedicated to critiquing Foucault and the philosophers and theorists who study and draw upon his work. I think that he shines a proverbial light on the aforementioned moments that allow the revolutionary potential of these subjugated individuals and knowledges to come through. Whether we take stock of his work in our commitment to emancipation is up to us. 

Currently my work on Foucault has been centered around attempting to connect the philosophy of the subject and conditions of knowledge to normalizing power and apparatuses of capture. Recently, I posted a piece to RevoltingBodies on Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition and philosophy as an apparatus that is armed with a particular normalizing power and biopolitical function. The piece begins to articulate where a project with such aims could go. I also believe that any attempt to critically engage with the philosophy of the body will have to, eventually, make contact with Foucault and his methodology.

How do you think we should conceptualize disability and disability’s relationship to the body and capital?

That is a great and extraordinarily difficult question. And I hope to continually refine this answer, as the answer that I can now provide to the question is not going to be sufficient. In fact, I am skeptical of whether there could ever be a definitive account of disability—historically, phenomenologically, or otherwise. To me, disability is central to the functionality of the biopolitical apparatus, which is fundamental to capital historically. But disability is also perpetually pushed beyond the scope of consideration politically. It is marginalized, yet central. It is precisely something that must constantly be identified and treated as abnormal, but what must also be constantly monitored explicitly because it is to be prevented. Disability exposes the sovereign immunopolitics of contemporary modes of production and governance. It constitutes the boundary between the normal and the aberrant itself, a distinction that allows biopolitical apparatuses and normalizing power to operate.

A few months ago, I put out a small piece of writing that touches on this position that disability occupies in relation the boundaries of the norm. It is something that I am deeply interested in, and I am excited to return to Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological and Foucault’s Abnormal lectures this summer.

When it comes to the direct relationship of disability to capital, we certainly have no shortage of examples in fundamental works. Marx, in the first volume of Capital, specifically in “The Working Day,” spends a notable amount of time examining the body of the worker, especially management of workers’ time in order to maximize their physical aptitude and productivity. He also makes similar assertions in the manuscripts of 1844 regarding the “servile asceticism” of the worker. Foucault, as well as others like Didier Deleule and François Guery, see the production of particular kinds of bodies as essential to the functionality of industrial capitalism.

Foucault, in various lectures in The Punitive Society, begins to identify normalizing power as a crucial mechanism to prevent what he calls labor “dissipation”, which, speaking broadly, is anything that is considered a non-productive bodily expenditure. In the age of industrial production, the establishment of complex systems of theft became less and less of an issue. Instead, there is an investment in the body itself. This investment constitutes a shift from the strictly moral to the moralized norm. It is no longer those who steal from the workshop that become the target of disciplinary power, but those who engage in a different kind of theft, namely, those who steal their own labor-power by not maintaining their physicality in order to maximize production when their labor is purchased. Foucault sees the accumulation of bodies to be as important to the owners of the means of production as the accumulation of capital. Docile bodies are productive bodies. I think an analysis of that relationship would need to start here. It is precisely at the level of production where the function of the docile body becomes rather clear. Disability has an openly antagonistic relationship with the very logic of production itself.

It is also here that I think divergence from some of the standard lines of thought on disability becomes necessary; a movement that I think is wonderfully executed in your monograph on Foucault. It comes down to the status of disability in capitalism. Does disability represent some limit of capital? In some ways, the works of Marx and Foucault show that disability presents a perpetually looming crucial crisis for capital. Are disabled people abandoned? Possibly. Tobin Siebers, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder allude to as much in their work. And there is certainly some validity to their positions, and that strand of pessimism is necessary. But it needs to be organized and redirected. That position of supposed abandonment can be the revolutionary one. I think disability is a model of revolt. It is the very thing that strikes the core of the logic of production itself. Disability theory is powerful insofar as it can provide tools to reject the broader paradigm that upholds these systems. If we are to understand the biopolitical as that which thwarts the formation of new worlds, then disability necessarily carries with it a possibility for a new world. The philosophy of disability does not conclude with just a simple assault on the armature or framework of ableism. It also opens a myriad of routes to new forms of life and modes of being. Like every insurrectionary motion, it is an act of creative destruction.

Will, as you’ve indicated, a vital element of philosophy of disability pertains to critical-philosophical analysis of ableism. As the Dialogues on Disability interviews exemplify, there is growing discussion about ableism in philosophy and academia more generally. Please tell us how you would characterize ableism in the university and in philosophy in particular. What sorts of ableist mechanisms and practices have you confronted in philosophy?

I think one way that ableism permeates philosophy particularly is that often disability-oriented criticism is treated as a “secondary” critique, a sub-genre of commentary, rather than a “legitimate” criticism of phenomenological or ontological works and the foundation upon which they are situated. You’ve pointed to this tendency in academia in an address that you gave in 2019. It seems that disability also exists on the periphery, the boundary, of philosophy as a discipline itself. Again, I think that, in a sense, this marginalization and delegitimization is due to the risk that disability (and philosophical work on it) poses to the notions of the unified subject and to a lot of foundational phenomenological assumptions of philosophy whose claim to universality disability threatens. Here, again, Foucault becomes helpful. The very first lecture of “Society Must Be Defended” deals explicitly with how certain discourses are considered legitimate and of central importance, and others are cast aside.

One personal experience that I had regarding ableism in academia is actually also related to this issue regarding the boundaries of critique. We briefly spoke about it on the episode of Acid Horizon on which you were a guest. When I was assistant coach of my alma mater’s debate team, several students wanted to prepare a critical position to respond to a tactic known as “speeding and spreading”. This tactic involves speaking extraordinarily quickly so that the team can posit so many arguments that, inevitably, certain arguments get dropped. This method of debate essentially excludes anyone with auditory processing disorders or dysgraphia from even considering competing. When our debaters brought it up during a pre-tournament community discussion, their concerns were entirely ignored. There is no other way to interpret that moment than as being emblematic of the ableism in academia more broadly. A lot of debaters and coaches pride themselves on their supposedly radical politics but none mentions how this common practice is exclusionary and blatantly ableist, and you will see a return to conservative notions regarding “aptitude” and “skill”.

There is also a lack of critical engagement with disability theory in philosophy. One could say that this current lack provides an opening for dialogue, new work, and new academic horizons. Yet it seems that those possibilities are always, repeatedly, perpetually pushed out of the center of the frame. And this decentering becomes all the more jarring in the face of this global pandemic. It has constituted where the sovereign immunopolitics of our contemporary order have become undeniable. Medical rationing guidelines across the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, exposed the sharpened fangs of the sovereign right to life. There is certainly no shortage of discourse surrounding disability, no shortage of crises worthy of analysis. Yet one is hard-pressed to find a philosophy department, at least in the United States, that is seriously working on the philosophy of disability. This lacuna is regrettable, to say the least. But it is also endemic of some of the broader issues that philosophers of disability and disability theorists are attempting to tackle. So, unsurprisingly, the material structures of the academy finally function to reproduce and sustain the very conditions that academics often claim to desire to alter.

Will, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed or talk about something that we haven’t touched upon? Do you want to recommend any articles or other materials related to something you’ve mentioned in this interview?

I have mentioned a few pieces and lectures in this interview, all of which are valuable resources for those who have comparable interests or commitments. I obviously recommend Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability and the work by other disability theorists that I mentioned. I will also use this opportunity to plug the blogs that my co-hosts at Acid Horizon run. Recently, Adam has been at work on the notion of “the people”, the name of the law, and the technology of democracy; Matthew has been writing about Deleuze, organization, and praxis; and Craig’s work ranges from the notion of judgement as it exists in Artaud to the writing of existentialist poet and philosopher Benjamin Fondane. All of them are putting out fantastic work and their individual academic pursuits have made Acid Horizon a far more interesting project because of it.

One thing that I want to touch on (which may seem, to some readers and listeners, as a minor point that has no real connection to the general motion of our conversation) is the cover of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. The cover includes a piece of artwork by the once-institutionalized artist Judith Scott. I think it was a wonderful choice for the book cover.

Several years ago, I watched a short documentary on Scott’s work. At one point in the film, to my surprise, the filmmakers place one of her sculptures under an x-ray machine in order to get a picture of what was holding the yarn structure together. I now cannot help but see this as a strange transference and dissemination of the medical gaze, one that can even take hold of the artistic output of an abnormal body. Even Scott’s art is placed under the technological eye of the clinician. Some qualification must be made of her artistic method and its value; some investigation pursued. The art falls under the domain of medical power, too. The artistic process seems to become a pathological development to be traced, one that can, and must, extract some truth of the subject who made it. One doubts whether sculptures of Giacometti or Calder’s moving pieces would be subject to such an intrusive investigation.

Anyway, I would like to thank you for having me on your series for this discussion. I really appreciate the work you do both here and elsewhere.

Will, thank you so much for your thoughtful and provocative remarks throughout this interview. I am very grateful for your appreciation of my work on Foucault, your enthusiasm about my choice of Scott’s sculpture for the cover of my book, and your ongoing appreciation of the Dialogues on Disability series.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Will Conway’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, August 18th for the seventy-seventh 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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