Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-seventh 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 in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and colonized people in other settler states.
My guest today is Isaac (YunQi) Jiang. Isaac is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University whose work is situated at the intersection of phenomenology, political aesthetics, classical Chinese philosophy, and critical infrastructure studies. A first-generation newcomer to Canada, Isaac, whose first exposure to the Western medical system was through his autism diagnosis, conducts research on infrastructure that is centrally concerned with institutional and state violence, as well as the material contours of contemporary racial necropolitics. Isaac will present some of this work at Philosophy, Disability and Social Change II in December.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Isaac! You are Chinese Canadian and moved to Canada when you were 10 years old. Please describe your educational background and how the diagnosis of autism to which you are subjected coincides with your access to ESL (i.e., English as a second language).
Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Shelley!
I moved here, as an uninvited guest to the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, in the year 2000, when the new Mike Harris Ontario provincial government introduced major cuts to the education budget. As a result, I had no access to ESL resources and was enrolled in a non-ESL Grade 5 class, despite not speaking a word of English. I was always socially awkward and had trouble making friends, but the language barrier and cultural shock likely compounded in behaviours that got me labelled “weird” by classmates and led to suspicions that I might have autism. After some back and forth between teachers and my parents, along with doctors’ visits, I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism (because I was excelling at math)—a diagnosis that stayed in my records throughout my pre-university school years.
Primary and secondary schools were very disorienting spaces for me. Making friends always seemed like an elusive art to me, and it didn’t help that my parents and other people constantly told me how “easy” it all is. Moving here at 10, I wasn’t particularly rooted in Mandarin, but I also never fully felt at home with using English to communicate, until at least my mid 20s. The way that people might hyper-fixate on how I pronounce certain things was discouraging and made me generally anxious at the prospect of social interaction and meeting new people. The conscious awareness that I was autistic also led my parents (and, by extension, me) to interpret every conversational misstep and social hesitancy on my part as a symptom with no real treatment, except through scolding and, occasionally, prayer.
I wasn’t a good student. I wasn’t trying to be a bad one either, but I had never been a big reader and ended up doing most of my assignments at the last minute. In most of my high-school classes, there was more emphasis on making “creative” colourful assignments than substantive learning; so the concern was always more towards getting through these classes than taking them seriously as fields of study.
I first took a philosophy class at York University when I was in Grade 11, through a partnership program with my high school. I did well enough that I got a scholarship that would cover my first year of study, if I were to do my undergrad at York. That scholarship was the primary reason that I went there for my B.A. and ended up studying philosophy.
Philosophy at York wasn’t very exciting at first. Much of its abstract thought-experiment-oriented approach—Gettier problems, twin earth with weird water molecules, trolley problems, etc.—felt like parodies of actual pedagogy. I gravitated towards philosophical approaches that felt more grounded and attentive to the embodied life, initially argumentation theory, with emphasis on the rhetorical approach, which is attentive to social standing and the power dynamic of speakers, and, eventually, feminist and social epistemology, trauma theory, and a host of postcolonial and ecological themes that came out of a contemporary philosophy course with Lorraine Code.
I did my philosophy M.A. at Western, supervised by Helen Fielding, who specializes in phenomenology, from which I found a very useful language to engage with basic questions of subjectivity, knowledge, and agency that had initially attracted me to philosophy. Insights from phenomenological and social approaches to disability also spoke to me on a personal level and probably initiated my current interest in infrastructure and the ways in which bodies inhabit the dense material, aesthetic, social, and political formations that we live by and within.
Because I did half of my coursework, while at Western, in the Women’s Studies and Theory/Criticism programs, I began to doubt whether philosophy suited me. So, I did a second M.A. at Trent University in an interdisciplinary program called Theory, Culture, and Politics. I found myself gravitating towards some of the emerging research in media studies, specifically, media in a broad philosophical sense: domestication of fire, atomic time, the letterpress—the mediating processes that have made current human existence possible. Barry Allen, my dissertation supervisor at McMaster, calls this “philosophical anthropology”: a way of engaging with the classical philosophical question of “know thyself” by exploring the conditions—technical, material, aesthetic—that make the “self” possible. This approach informs my current Ph.D. dissertation research on infrastructures.
Please describe how macro and microaggressions with respect to your diagnosis have shaped your experiences of growing up.
The diagnosis was vague, not diagnosing some specific symptom with a specific treatment in mind, but rather a general suggestion that there’s something substantively “wrong” with me. Lack of treatment options sent my parents on a wild goose chase, following various “leads” about possible treatment breakthroughs for autism, no matter how sketchy the sources. They spent a lot of time and money buying vitamin supplements, attending support groups, putting me through all manner of individual and group therapy sessions, and, in my adolescence, sending me to a new “specialist” every couple of weeks. None of these “treatments” achieved whatever vague sense of “normalcy” that my parents sought for me. Even though these treatments were supposedly purchased for my benefits, I felt haplessly unable to make sense of what they wanted to accomplish.
The diagnosis was about me but didn’t add anything to my sense of self. By contrast, it really spoke to my parents, effectively operating as a license for them to further diagnose me. I began to hear a lot of parental frustrations re-narrated as effects of my autism symptoms: from my crying a lot as a baby to my being a picky eater. “That’s a symptom” became the go-to short-hand for marking any trait I had that was deemed suboptimal. The categorization of something as symptomatic of autism is far from an exact science. From where I stood, the declaration of aspects of my behaviours as “symptom” often revealed less about me than about the social and epistemic commitments involved for singling out what my parents chose to see as in need of correction. The more that I was observed in relation to these lists of symptoms, the more that these lists became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and the more I was called on to self-police behaviours deemed to align with what was listed. And the more that I learned to self-police, the more “evidence” it purportedly showed that the treatments they paid for were “working.”
Kids at school were up-front about how “weird” they thought I was; and the way that teachers would often, in very heavy-handed ways, enforce communication between students reinforced my social anxiety about my limited English skills. The way my “weirdness” was tied to how I talk or carry myself did not go unnoticed, and much of the classroom microaggression directed my way tended to mock those facts. Other kids might imitate the way that I pronounce things, squint their eyes for an “Asian look,” and would sometimes spout gibberish meant to sound like Chinese, in an attempt to “communicate” with me. While clearly racist, when my Asian classmates called out this behaviour, they would be “reassured” that it was directed at me because I was “weird,” not because of race and racism. So, it is difficult to disentangle my experience of racism from the ableist perception that I was “weird,” given that the latter served as a perpetual alibi for the former.
When the 2007 Georgia Tech massacre was carried out by first-generation Korean American Cho Seung-Hui, several of my peers would make remarks, in different gradations of jest, comparing me to the supposedly “mentally-unstable,” “Asian,” “loner” who carried it out. When confronted, the immediate defense was always to downplay the role “Asian” played in the comparison, emphasizing instead “weird” and “loner” as the primary criteria. Neurodivergence—perceived or otherwise—was seen as something in a zero-sum competition with race as the explanation behind micro and macroaggressions directed at me.
Many op-eds at the time, written by Asian Americans, disavowed the attack as the work of a mad man that didn’t reflect the “Asian-American community.” Cho’s family in South Korea had suggested, as an explanation for the attack, that Cho was autistic, though he had no clinical diagnosis. I did notice some striking similarities in our situations: Cho too had come to North America at an early age—we were the “1.5 generation,” which is meant to characterize a lack of rootedness in both cultures—and he also found the linguistic and social environment difficult to acclimate to. Diagnosed as “selectively mute,” he too suffered various racial and ableist micro and macroaggressions, including demands that he “go back to China” and mockery of his speaking patterns. It was difficult to process the ways that I found some of his background situations relatable. Mental illness is often a scapegoat, offers a convenient explanation for violence, despite lack of statistical correlation, and can act as a buffer against the very real anti-Asian sentiments generated by the attack.
[Description of image below: Isaac, who is outside, facing the viewer, masked, and wearing wire glasses, appears in the foreground of the shot. Tall buildings and other structures, as well as a steel lamp-post and trees with leaves on their branches can be seen in the background.]
Recognizing the intersection of racism and ableism has, for me, always been essential to understanding their deployment and practice, not because they, individually, are somehow similarly configured, but rather because they sustain and enable one another in complex systemic formations. My experience of how one serves as an alibi to buffer against accusations of the other is only one example. It’s an uphill battle to get this point across among philosophy colleagues, who often default to explanations of racism as simply a “prejudice” that ascribes an abstract notion of “inferiority” to ethnic groups. Such explanations are less analyses than they are ad hoc pretexts that disingenuously subsume systemic oppressions as “topics” already addressed by existing moral frameworks.
Sitting on the McMaster MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) chapter’s coordination committee has revealed some notable limitations in organized efforts to address philosophy’s diversity problem. Intersectionality is either a non-starter or, at best, a fashionable buzzword whose subversive implications are not taken seriously. I have been asked, again and again, to defend disability against race as distinct “topics” competing for representation.
Diversity work often gets sidelined in favour of more “substantive” concerns when it comes to decisions about which speakers to invite and who to hire, while “inclusion” is often dealt with haphazardly as a matter of filling an extra set of “checkboxes.” The checkbox approach further marginalizes disability from this politics of representation and naturalizes both the fragmentation and outsider status of what gets selectively excluded from “real” philosophical topics like law, language, and personal identity, as if such things have nothing to do with the embodied life or the legacy of colonialism.
For example, in response to student outrage over the shortlist of candidates for a recent philosophy of law hire here at McMaster—none of the chosen candidates engages with the Canadian legal context, for example, as shaped by Indigenous-settler relations, Black Lives Matter, etc.—a member of the hiring committee told us, matter-of-factly, that the candidates were “for philosophy of law, not philosophy of race,” as if “philosophy of race” has a monopoly over all race-related research. It is frustrating to try to create a space in philosophy to do research concerning race and disability, only to have these “subfields” actively reinterpreted as ghettos for confining such research. Obviously, not everyone involved is insincere, but the infrastructural tendency of this checkbox system appears to primarily work towards preserving the moral innocence of the discipline through “woke” rebranding rather than making real structural changes.
Isaac, your interest in philosophy seems to derive from an entwinement of gaming, language, and autism. How would you describe the interconnections between these phenomena and your identity?
I spent a lot of time playing games in my early teens, mostly Japanese role-playing games. One of my favourites was an early 2000s series called Golden Sun, which had several vibrant online fandom community forums—before social-media platforms monopolized online interactions. The forum discussions were not limited to games. And to the extent they were, it was never just passive appreciation, but rather fan theories, collaborative text-based role playing, and original content that took the game as nothing more than springboard. A growing body of literature in the rather niche field of Fandom Studies repudiates the notion that fan activities are simply passive forms of consumption, understanding them as an important component of a hybrid public culture that defines the infrastructural workings of various media ecologies.
Interacting with people in this mediated text-based manner was, in many ways, liberating, for I can brood over and edit what I have to say before saying it; I can take as much time as I want before saying something; and I don’t have to worry that I will be mocked for my accent, or any number of “abnormal” ticks usually read off me during face-to-face interactions. I didn’t have close friendships there but felt a sense of community and genuinely looked forward to talking with some of the people I met. Occasionally, more “serious” debates took place on these forums about standard “controversial” topics like religion, abortion, same-sex marriage, “ethics in video-game journalism,” and so forth. Observing and learning to participate in these kinds of discussions on the forums gave me a feel for how to articulate my thoughts in argumentative ways. I also learned to use HTML, CSS, PHP, and photoshop, trying to figure out the mechanics of web design and server hosting. Though this learning didn’t exactly translate over to “real-life” social skills—and I was encouraged to see these interactions as less “real” because they were online—I did become a lot more comfortable with academic writing assignments because of them.
Not everything coming out of these online forums was positive. But moving between the different kinds of social spaces and assessing the different ways that I fit in them initially got me thinking about communication as primarily a socio-technical process. Communication, rather than a set of linguistic skills that’s individually circumscribed, is something conditioned by the medium. The medium is not merely a passive background for its occurrence but rather a constitutive part of the communication itself. Moving between these spaces and assessing them also made me think about the different ways that identity, friendship, communities, intimacy, and sociality might exist and be configured outside of normative social expectations.
It’s true that these kinds of technologically mediated social relationships may not live up to rosy ideals of what these relationships ought to be like, but in-person “real” relationships don’t always live up to such ideals either. We know all the ways that in-person relationships can be toxic, alienating, abusive. If anything, in-person relationships pose more difficulties for asserting personal boundaries than online relationships—not always, but there isn’t, for example, some real-life equivalent of blocking and deleting school bullies or leaving websites they frequent, at least not without severe financial and psychological burden. The medium conditions our interactions, but it doesn’t determine them in the sense of hard determinism. The fact that a communication is “in-person” does not guarantee that it will be deep, intimate, or even free of abuse, just as the fact of technical mediation does not preclude these phenomena. There are many philosophical questions that could be asked about how technical medium conditions our communication; yet we often fail to consider these questions in favour of more puritanical pursuits over which one is more “real.”
Coming to philosophy with this kind of social background proved to be an alienating experience. I thought that I would be interested in studying philosophy of language and philosophy of time. But, of what I’ve read in the canon of the former, very little is said concerning the mediums of language—writing, letterpress, alphabet, standardization of QWERTY layout, recording devices, etc.—and how they condition, transform, and co-constitute our relationships to memory, culture, and history. The latter, that is, philosophy of time, has very little to say about the material practices of timekeeping and regimes of standardized temporal representations, or how the current predominance of atomic time shapes and configures our notion of selfhood, organization of communities, institutions, labour practices, and global capitalism.
Trying to talk about the infrastructural contours of language and time often proved frustrating, since they are often cast as extraneous derivatives to a study of the “properly” philosophical objects of “language” and “time.” Like the way that racist and ableist practices are, as I mentioned, assumed to be secondary to, and fully explainable by, a thing called “prejudice,” mediums of representations are, in this literature, assumed to be the secondary epiphenomena of a substantive thing called “time” or a natural human tendency called “language.”
Infrastructural analysis, when I first encountered it, offered a counternarrative to this hierarchical epistemology, insofar as it emphasizes the socio-technics conditioning these processes. Infrastructural analysis recognizes that the ways in which we measure, diagnose, classify, and represent things are neither neutral practices nor extraneous to the constitution of the very “things” that they were sorting out. Things like language and time, as we experience them, do not simply pre-exist (and causally determine) practices and medium of representation; instead, the latter are part of their constitutive infrastructures. A city does not simply pre-exist its residents but rather its contours are the results of complex combinations of people, resources, objects, and practices that initially give rise to the enduring modes of regularity that we would retroactively call a “city.”
Let’s follow this line of thought, Isaac. You and I have been taught by some of the same philosophy professors. As you noted above, Barry Allen, at McMaster, is your Ph.D. dissertation supervisor. Barry was my M.A. thesis supervisor and mentor. Under Barry’s supervision, you are writing a dissertation on infrastructure, a topic that philosophers have largely neglected. Please describe your dissertation project and the influences that led you to the topic.
We get the word infrastructure from 19th-century French railroad engineering. When first adopted into English, it was a technical term that referred to the organizational work conducted at the site before tracks could be laid rather than to built structures, such as the railroad itself. In the 20th century, the term infrastructure became more general military jargon, adopted to denote all manner of fixed installations (airfields, fuel tanks, pipelines, etc.) that enable and facilitate effective military operations. Later on, the term came to shape the developmental imaginary of cold-war politics. For example, we heard Ronald Reagan talk about investing in “the infrastructure of democracy,” as a way of rebranding jingoist and exploitative foreign policies. Having outgrown its military roots, the word now principally refers to any underlying foundation of a nation’s economy; thus, public institutions such as schools, hospitals, banks, public transit, and increasingly, the internet, get pulled together in this expanded definition of infrastructure.
It’s fascinating to trace the changing meaning of infrastructure, which is, itself, not uncontroversial. Some purists loathe the all-encompassing genericness that the word has come to embody, while others find the current genericness of the term to be its strength. What we mean by “infrastructure” has evolved in relation to the arrangement of our material, technical, and social structures. A military metaphor, couched in the logic of depth and hierarchical command structure, is in many ways inadequate for capturing the dispersed and recursive nuance of how many of our contemporary infrastructural complexes operate.
For example, computer networks can be thought of as having infrastructures—such as electricity—“below” their operation; but electrical grids and many of our existing infrastructures have increasingly come to rely on and be regulated by computer networks, making the latter the infrastructure of infrastructures. Infrastructure can no longer be taken to mean a material substrate that’s literally under us. Note that we hear both politicians and activists increasingly adopt the word infrastructure to talk about operations of dispersed power structures in society, for example, to talk about an “infrastructure” of racism as processed by practices such as redlining, gentrification, and suburban sprawl.
As a philosopher, talking about infrastructure has been difficult because all of what I just mentioned creates problems for answering the seemingly natural question “so, what is infrastructure?” including that we are looking at something contextual and relational, i.e., what is infrastructure for one person—say, a flight of stairs—can be a barrier for another. Deciding whether something is infrastructural is like deciding which of my behaviours is really an autism symptom. Like accurately identifying and categorizing autism symptoms, defining what counts as infrastructure is not an exact science but rather a cultural analytic highlighting the political and epistemological commitments involved in making that call.
Susan Leigh Star has suggested that when it comes to infrastructure, the question is not what—which presupposes stability in the object defined—but when—or, under what conditions—relational arrangements might become infrastructural. This shift in emphasis from “what” to “when” is central for me in thinking about the methodology of my project. By focusing on “when” instead of “what,” infrastructure offers an alternative methodological framework for doing philosophy—I’m tentatively calling it “Infrastructural Thinking.” What I mean is this: thinking that is an interrogation of the enabling conditions that allow for the articulation of concepts and ideas rather than thinking that is about a class of rigidly specifiable objects.
So, it’s a way of doing philosophy that doesn’t focus on “big ideas,” such as the “good life” or “justice” as abstract models, but rather attends to the contours of the material formations that sought to, nominally or substantively, enact their promises. Infrastructural thinking is less a question of what we think about infrastructure than about how infrastructure thinks us—the way that material environment has always been involved in producing the distinctions (nature/society, culture/technology, human/non-human) that we attribute to thinking and making claims about (and reinforcing the boundaries of) identity, social belonging, and the metaphysical and emancipatory limits of what is imaginable.
Adopting this kind of an approach has led me to take seriously some of the insights from classical Chinese philosophy—especially Confucianism’s concern for rites. It’s problematic to overgeneralize, but one theme that distinguishes Chinese philosophy from “Western” philosophy is the former’s focus on the “small things” that make the “big things” possible, that is, how daily rituals shape the very fabric and density of everydayness. Interestingly, infrastructural metaphors, such as references to dams and dikes, are frequently invoked in Confucian discussion of ritual propriety.
Over the course of the pandemic, an ableist discourse amongst philosophers has steadily grown about the superiority of so-called natural interaction, face-to-face conferences, and in-class teaching over technological venues for these activities. The ableism and inaccessibility that you have encountered as a graduate student likewise seem to revolve around assumptions about “natural” forms of human interaction and how technology ostensibly compromises these human engagements. Please explain your experiences in this regard.
Even without the pandemic as a pretext, the assumption embedded in the idea of the primacy of face-to-face interaction as the best and most natural form of communication, which technology threatens to compromise and corrupt, has had a very long shelf-life in philosophy. Socrates rather famously denounced writing in the Phaedrus as a corrupting force, as a technology that would ruin memory and introduce forgetfulness into the soul. This, in my mind, spells out the mechanism of the cliché conservative reaction that gets repeated every time a new technology comes along. We heard it with the radio, television, e-mails, instant messaging, etc. Social media and video-conferencing platforms appear to be the latest scapegoats accused of threatening to destroy our public sphere.
I don’t want to downplay the effects of these technologies, nor to suggest that they are beyond criticism. But these kinds of “concerns” seem like a nostalgic knee-jerk reaction couched in unexamined assumptions about the naturalness of communication and the public. While I am often sympathetic about the learning curve that people unfamiliar with technology find themselves compelled to climb to adjust to a remote learning format, it’s frustrating when that unfamiliarity gets formulated as a contrast with a more “natural” form of social interaction—as if face-to-face social relationships don’t come with their own learning curves.
Face-to-face communication has, for most of my life, been the most stressful and alienating medium of communication. A lot of work is needed to adjust to and to mitigate its regime of visibility and spatial discipline to make it tolerable; it doesn’t just come “naturally” for everyone. Neither natural nor unmediated, the notion that face-to-face communication can overcome the opacity of other minds is pure fantasy. “You never know who’s on the other side of the screen” also has its earlier 1950s-prototype in “You never know who’s on the other side of the line” concerning the radio and telephone. And those “concerns” were often couched in racist motivations about not being able to see the skin colour of who one was talking to and worries about the potential of this opacity to subvert segregation laws.
Many of us may find it more comfortable to talk face to face. But that sense of comfort, we should be careful to recognize, is not necessarily based on deep reciprocated connections; it could just as well be based on an entirely one-sided surveillance capacity afforded to us by this particular medium of communication. Personal comfort is not unimportant. But what’s most troubling is the way that these personal-comfort preferences get codified into pedagogical practices. I T.A.’d for a professor who was notorious for her anti-technology approach. She would ban the use of laptops in class, authoritatively cite some poorly researched studies about the efficacy of written notes over typed ones, require official Accessibility Service documentation for students who wished to use laptops, and make them sit in the front row to “avoid distracting other students.” That made things difficult for me because I type all my notes. The irony of teaching a course about “political resistance” while imposing such ableist parameters must have been lost on her.
More than just a matter of classroom discipline, ableist assumptions also colour what we understand to count or not to count as political participation. The way that online activities are cast as somehow outside of “real” political participation and not taken seriously is ableist, irresponsible, and dangerous. It’s not that technology will by any means “save” us, but rather that people who simply dismiss technology and assume that it has no political or philosophical dimensions seem not to recognize the conservatism behind their assumptions. And I have often seen these assumptions materialize into demands for political expressions to cater to the comfort-level of those in power.
Isaac, 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 to recommend your Foucault and the Feminist Philosophy of Disability for, among other things, its meticulous breakdown of the PhilPapers database’s infrastructure and how it configures the marginalization of critical work on disability in philosophy. Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included and her blog Feminist Killjoy really helped me make sense of the infrastructural politics of diversity work and institutional design. Some other really cool anti-oppression infrastructure research includes: Infrastructure of Race by Daniel Nemser, The Sonic Color Line by Jennifer Lynn Stoever, and Building Access by Aimi Hamraie.
Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to share my story.
Isaac, thank you so much for this fabulous interview which will make an important contribution to the archive of the series. Your ideas are fascinating and exciting. I look forward to hearing your presentation in December and to reading some of your future published work.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Isaac Jiang’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, September 15th for the seventy-eighth 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.