Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Adrian Ekizian Barton

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the eighty-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 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 so-called Canada and other colonized settler states.

My guest today is Adrian Ekizian Barton. Adrian is an adjunct philosophy and women and gender studies instructor in California. His research deals with genealogies and phenomenologies of neuroqueer, queer, and trans identity, particularly in reference to their radical world-building potential. In his free time, he likes to watch anime, play video games, enjoy the outdoors with his dogs, play guitar and ukulele, and play trading card and tabletop roleplaying games, such as Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Adrian! Please describe your background, how it led you to become a professional philosopher and, in particular, how your pursuit of an education in philosophy is entwined with your gender.

Hello Shelley, thank you very much for having me.

So, I grew up during the 90’s, in central California, the most conservative part of the state, in a conservative, Christian household and white neighborhood on the traditional territory of the Sioux, Cherokee, Yokut, and Iroquois peoples. I was involved with the Presbyterian Church from a very young age, attended a small-town school, and was psychiatrized and diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which I was medicated at the age of 11. From a young age, there were many aspects of my way of being that were in tension with the world around me. My gender performance was certainly one of these sites of tension; and I found myself policed, punished, bullied, shamed, and psychoanalyzed for it.

In kindergarten, my teacher had a parent-teacher conference with my folks to express concern to them about my gendered behaviors, including playing with the boys during recess; chasing the girls at recess; and trying to use the boys’ restroom. She “informed” my parents that I would likely be lesbian. Throughout the rest of my childhood and teen years, it was often pointed out to me, with much disdain, that I “mimicked” men. The narrative that my family told was that I would “copy” the stances and gestures of my uncles and other adult men in my life. I was told by peers and other adults in my life that my gestures, stances, and walking and sitting styles were too masculine or were otherwise queer.

I often found myself at odds with others, as I was caught between being too masculine and being a non-cis man. In my private journals, I would often write about relationships with different girls and women in my life. My journals were discovered, photocopied, highlighted, footnoted, and sent to various psychiatrists. My “infatuation” and “obsession” with “desiring” women and “mimicking” boys and men were viewed as evidence of my illness or at least worthy of psychoanalytic treatment.

Throughout these years, I looked to various mentors as I tried to make sense of myself amid these instances of desubjugation. As I mentioned, I had a religious upbringing; so, at some point, I turned to a youth pastor for counselling about being “gay”. I was told that it was sinful to be gay, that it was absolutely not okay, and was in fact something against which I should fight. Later, when I dated my first girlfriend, my parents sent me to another pastor for counselling. While, to my parents’ dismay, this pastor was more open to LGBTQ people, he gave me inconsistent and ambiguous answers when I asked him what God thought about queer people.

I was frustrated by this lack of clarity and inconsistency. I felt as if I was not getting any closer to an answer about who I was and whether it was okay to be that way or not. So, I began to study different translations of the bible and did my own research into the meanings of the original Hebrew words. Anytime that I could get my hands on a different translation of the bible, I would search for the passages on homosexuality and try to ascertain their true meaning. I eventually was able to reconcile some sort of narrative of my (then) Christian faith with queerness, but it wasn’t quite enough for me. I still felt disoriented and out of sorts.

The first philosophy course that I took was an intro to philosophy course that focused on epistemology and metaphysics. My second philosophy course was an intro to ethics course. In these courses, I learned that there were branches of philosophy that focused on questions that I had, in some way or another, often asked myself as someone who grew up queer: What exists? How do we know what is true? What is moral? What is immoral? Obviously, there are a variety of answers given to those questions that lie beyond the limited purview to which I had been exposed, bringing new questions to the forefront. I began to ask myself epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical questions about gender and sexuality, such as: What is gender/sexuality? What is my gender/sexuality? Is it moral or immoral?

When I transferred from community college to a university, I chose to become a philosophy major and a women and gender studies minor. By studying philosophy, alongside women and gender studies, new terrains to traverse were opened up to me and new horizons came within my milieu. I started to reach towards different sorts of questions. Questions about what gender is and questions that assigned any sort of moralizing value judgement to gender fell to the background. Questions about what gender does and what it does with me appeared at the forefront. These new questions invited me to understand gender in non-essentialist terms, which brought into view new understandings of myself as queer and trans. I felt more “at-home” with these terms.

[Description of photo below: a head-shot of Adrian who is looking directly at us with a somewhat challenging expression on his face. Adrian is wearing a floral shirt and has a closely-cropped beard, short dark hair, light skin, and an ear plug piercing in his left ear.]

Adrian, you have indicated to me that your work with phenomenological and genealogical approaches to philosophy has empowered you and enabled you to redefine your experiences in new ways. Please explain this sentiment.

So, at some point, my studies brought me to Butler’s Gender Trouble; and it was around this time that the questions that I mentioned above started to appear for me. Butler’s critique of the sex-gender distinction, through the concept of performativity, contributed considerably to the shift in my thinking about gender. Before reading Butler, I conceived gender as an essence that people—that is, people other than myself—actualized healthily and properly. I thought of gender as somehow tainted and made pathological in me through mimicry. In Gender Trouble and various articles, Butler explains how this sort of narrative about gender becomes normative in discourses on drag, where drag is assumed to be the copy of the real thing. Thinking about gender in terms of performativity allowed me to understand gender as something that is only made real through doing, that is, through the lived repetition and habituation of various gestures, speech, styles of walking, and so on. Gender was no longer a thing inside me that was wrong with me or a cheap knockoff of the real thing. Rather gender became for me a style of being with which I could play and dance.

As I continued to study philosophy, I came to realize that the kind of philosophy that is heralded in the discipline is the kind of analytic philosophy that seeks to establish and define essences, functions, and forms; the very kinds of totalization and essentialism that I had been learning to be critical of in my understandings of gender. It wasn’t long before I arrived at various writings of Nietzsche and Foucault, who both influenced Butler, and eventually, my approach towards philosophy as a whole leaned genealogical. Questions of how things came to be drew me in. Phenomena appeared as effects of doing rather than essences that existed naturally. My attention turned to power: institutions, systems, apparatuses, relationships of subordination; and the world, my identity, my experiences both past and present, appeared differently to me, as products of power.

During my graduate education at Western, I took a course on Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception which introduced me formally to the field of phenomenology. While Foucault and Nietzsche had turned my attention to power, phenomenology brought my attention back to the lived experience, most specifically, the lived experience of bodies in a world. For Merleau-Ponty, a body’s ability to feel geared into a world, such that your “gears” run smoothly, is dependent upon the way that the world is and, in turn, the way it receives you. Thinking about how lived experience unfolds as a result of the way one’s body comes up against the world made sense to me given the shift in my own lived experiences as a result of my own interactions with the outside world.

Upon digging deeper into phenomenology, I found Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Ahmed directed my attention specifically to how bodies and spaces are oriented; how what appears depends on your point of view; how one’s point of view is directed by objects that function as orientation devices by directing us to apprehend the world and inhabit space in certain ways. I followed Ahmed in this line of thought to continue to think about gender and philosophy, specifically to think about how the definition of male and female bodies as objects of knowledge orients us towards heterosexuality and, similarly, how the objects that philosophy contemplates orient it as a discipline. I thought further about how I, myself, had been oriented by these objects.

How has exposure to the anti-psychiatry movement and critiques of sanism shaped your identity and experiences of self in philosophy, Adrian?

I mentioned previously that I was psychiatrized at a young age. The diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder has followed me almost my entire life, as have my particular lived experiences of neuroqueerness. One of the common threads in my experiences of neuroqueerness have been invasive, unwanted, and disturbing thoughts and “compulsions”: checking, tapping, hand washing. These experiences in and of themselves are distressful, but how I had come to apprehend my experiences was equally, if not more disorienting and anxiety-inducing. For a long time, I was afraid of becoming “unhinged”, and “insane” and of losing myself to the images and thoughts in my mind. I was often asked by others whether I had taken my pills whenever I expressed either an anxiety or “unreasonable” thought; or I was told that I should see a psychiatrist whenever I would confide in someone about my experiences. As a result, I had come to be afraid of myself.

During my graduate studies, Jennifer Poole at Ryerson University came to Western to give a talk on sanism and madness. I hesitated about attending the talk because I was anxious that thinking too deeply about and unpacking anything about “madness” or “sanity” would only confirm my fears that I was, essentially, on the road to unraveling. I did attend the talk in the end, however, which was my first exposure to the anti-psychiatry movement and the concept of sanism.

Sanism describes the systematic subjugation of people who have received mental health diagnoses or treatment. The concept of sanism derives from an approach to madness that views “mad” and “insane” people through hierarchies of reasonability/rationality that position “mentally healthy” individuals at the highest level of reasonability and civilization while situating the “mad” and “insane” at the lowest level. Sanist discourses rely on cultural representations of insanity and madness that work to situate as “incompetent,” “incapable,” in need of constant supervision, unpredictable, “violent,” and irrational individuals whose ways of being or cognitive processes depart in some way from what psychiatric discourses deem as normal. Coming to understand the effect sanism had had on my subjectivity brought about a release of tension and a feeling of comfort and “at-homeness”. Again, as with gender, a shift occurred in how my experiences appeared to me. I realized how much sanism had oriented me in the world, how it had brought about so much of my distress.

Relatedly, in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, another text I was moved toward during this time, Deleuze and Guatarri discuss how neurosis and psychosis are products of psychiatry and capitalism. The categorization and hierarchicazation of human experience by psychiatry in a neoliberal society makes neuroqueer experience unintelligible, bringing forth disorientation and distress. Thinking about my lived experiences in this way helped me locate the problem outside of myself and find it in institutions and systems of power.

After I was exposed to critiques of sanism, instances of its influence became evident to me everywhere, including its presence in philosophy itself. Merleau-Ponty puts it well when he recognizes the “presumption of reason as the fundamental philosophical problem”. He addresses this presumption through a critique of empiricism, intellectualism, and Kantian philosophy in Phenomenology of Perception. For him, sensing is a living communication with the world where experience is given living value; it is not a “pure quale” given to us through our “impartial minds” as much of traditional epistemologies seems to suggest. 

Despite Merleau-Ponty’s critique of reason, his phenomenology colludes with sanism in its own ways. Throughout the course on Phenomenology of Perception, there were various times when, as a class, we would discuss the “patients” mentioned in the text and their experiences of what he termed the “morbid world”. The morbid world refers to the lived space of the “schizophrenic”, an “impoverished” landscape that is cut off from the “common world”. According to Merleau-Ponty, this separation causes the person in this lived space to live in a “private world” where “everything is amazing, absurd, or unreal”; where the world is no longer self-evident. This space, for Merleau-Ponty, is contrary to “natural/clear/impartial space,” which is “reassuring and evident.”

I felt extremely uncomfortable with the way that these parts of the text were addressed. It felt as if all of us were sitting in a circle analyzing as some sort of disease a human being in a test-tube or talking about them as if they were some abstract philosophical entity that had no real existence outside of our pathologizing analysis. Additionally, the totalizing way with which neuroqueerness was described, that is, through the use of a handful of case-studies, struck me as problematic and reductive. In these ways, Merleau-Ponty’s text acted as a sanist orientation device in the classroom; it invited us to talk about neuroqueerness in sanist terms.

I decided, therefore, that for my Master’s Research Project, I would articulate a critique of Merleau-Ponty’s account of the “morbid world.” I framed the paper as a situated and particular critical phenomenology of madness that, in short, set out to contribute to the work of reclaiming the “morbid world” through lived experiences of neuroqueerness, including my own. A section of the paper was a phenomenological description of those experiences. Writing the paper provided me with a means to reorient myself as a neuroqueer person, stepping away from sanist understandings of myself and also sanist ways of doing philosophy.

Please describe for our readers and listeners the reception of your work on sanism and how your work on disability in general has affected your career.

Well, the reception of my work has not been the best. I was told that trying to publish my paper on Merleau-Ponty and neuroqueerness would not bode well for my academic career. It was suggested to me that maybe I should wait until I receive tenure somewhere. The frustrating thing is that even pitching this type of research to get into a Ph.D. program has been unsuccessful for me. I have been told either that my work is not philosophy at all and is better suited for social sciences or that the work is too interdisciplinary.

You can imagine how work that argues that philosophy’s fundamental problem is its assumption of reason would be received by philosophy departments which operate on this assumption and whose entire programs are built to foster it: the work is mostly written off or looked down upon. In the past, I’ve taken portions of this paper and its argument to conferences and have been met with remarks from uncomfortable colleagues such as “Well, I’m not sure that we would want to fully get rid of reason.” Which, of course, misses the point entirely.

Adrian, what other problems and issues with exclusion and inaccessibility have you encountered in either your current position or as a student?

For me, the issues with inaccessibility have very much been related to my transness because I have not previously disclosed that I have a diagnosis to anyone at my job. This predicament brings to light an important issue about the intersections between neuroqueerness and trans and queer identities.

At the community college where I am currently employed, I have had to jump through a ridiculous number of hoops to get my deadname removed from school online interfaces and on-campus mailboxes. Indeed, I have dealt with these issues over the course of several semesters, making it so that I have had to repeatedly explain to my students why there are different names in different places and why one name is “female” and the other name is “male,” which often invites unwanted questions regarding my transition.

At my college, discussion has taken place about installing gender-neutral bathrooms on campus for both faculty and students. When a proposal was made to investigate the possibility of doing so, well, let’s just say that the philosophy department faculty group email discussion about the prospect was pretty awful. The entire discussion of the issue was treated more like a philosophical question rather than something that affected the lives of real living and breathing people, not to mention how it affected the two queer adjunct faculty included in the email. The chair of the department was simply absent from the conversation until the discussion fizzled.

One faculty member showcased their privilege and lack of empathy for queer folks by complaining about the suggested location of one of the bathrooms in a main building on campus where philosophy classes are held, a building that also happens to house this faculty member’s office. The proposal was to investigate the possibility of converting the faculty bathroom downstairs to a shared gender-neutral student and faculty bathroom. My colleague made quite a fuss about this, saying that, unless cleaners regularly serviced it, they didn’t want to have to share a bathroom with students who would leave the bathroom “trashed.”

The colleague also didn’t want to have to walk up the stairs to the other staff bathroom when the current setup had a bathroom right next to their office. I responded to this email and pointed out this person was not disabled by the stairs and that there was a certain level of privilege in this complaint given that I, a trans man, who shared an office with this person, didn’t have access to a safe bathroom at all. This person responded by saying that they were not opposed to gender-neutral bathrooms but rather were “just going to say it because no one else will” that they were against the proposal as written. I pointed out that resistance to any proposal that would help queer and trans folks have some bathroom access was effectually resistance to our cause, considering how often these kinds of changes ever see the light of day. The colleague responded to me with only two words: “False Dichotomy.”

I think this conflict brings to light some key points about inaccessibility and philosophy. The name of a logical fallacy is seen as enough to end a discussion about accessibility. It is asserted that you have broken the rules of reason, therefore, no more need be said. I was simply not being reasonable. Compound this ableism with the sanist assumptions according to which people with queer and trans identities are “not being in their right mind” anyway and you’ve got a recipe for exclusion. Needless to say, the bathroom issue was tabled and left unaddressed.

In terms of career stability, I effectively have very little. While I do have some freedom in the topics that I am able to teach, I only get to teach three classes a semester, with no benefits, no stable contract, and I’m paid an adjunct wage that requires me to find work at multiple campuses and have other side jobs. Finding full-time work in my areas of specialization is considerably more difficult as well, especially because community colleges and universities alike are requiring or highly preferring their instructors to have Ph.D.s; Ph.D.s with specialization in logic and analytic philosophy or religion.

Adrian, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed? Is there anything that you would like to talk about 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?

Again, thank you for this opportunity, Shelley! I am glad to have gotten the chance to chat with you.

I guess that I can say that my experiences lend credence, I think, to the claim that subjectivity is an effect of the entanglement of body and world. It is through the simultaneous experience of engaging with new people, new texts, new material places, and new doings, that I feel myself coming into being, becoming, in new ways. I think that this relation between subjectivity and entanglement speaks to the importance of centralizing and emphasizing philosophy of disability. It is an accessibility issue when we do not have access to language and philosophy that make space for us to extend into the world. If we cannot extend into the world, we won’t have the ability to build on what has already been done. I am thankful for those who paved the way before me so that I was able to find resources that allowed me to more easily gear into the world and find my voice.

In terms of recommendations, I would absolutely direct readers and listeners to Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies which gives a great survey of work on lived experiences of madness and the significance and impact of Mad Studies. Jennifer Poole, who I mentioned earlier, has a few wonderful pieces in the reader.

For more reading on neuroqueerness, Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness by Remi Yergeau is definitely worth checking out. They focus specifically on the rhetoricity of autistic and neuroqueer folks, how it is denied, and how it can be reconceptualized.

And finally, I must recommend your book, Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, which makes such important contributions to philosophy, especially with its emphasis on the relationship between prevailing conceptions of disability in philosophy and the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers.

Adrian, I want to thank you for your very memorable remarks in this interview. I know that so many readers and listeners of your interview will be grateful for them. The interview will make an invaluable contribution to the archive of the Dialogues on Disability series.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Adrian Ekizian Barton’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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From April 2015 to May 2021, I coordinated, edited, and produced the Dialogues on Disability series without any institutional or other financial support. A Patreon account now funds the series, enabling me to continue to create it. You can contribute your support for these vital interviews with disabled philosophers at the Dialogues on Disability Patreon page here.

Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 16th for the eighty-third 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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