Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain With Isaac (YunQi) Jiang

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventh-anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy, and academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

During the past year, for the seventh year in a row, I conducted landmark interviews with disabled philosophers who are variously situated with respect to disability, race, gender, institutional status, age, culture, nationality, and sexuality and whose philosophical work covers a wide range of specializations and research interests. This seventh-anniversary installment of the series highlights insights and lessons that these philosophers offered the philosophical community, reflecting upon the contributions to philosophy that their interviews have made.

I am delighted that Isaac (YunQi) Jiang, with whom I conducted a fascinating interview last August, has returned to Dialogues on Disability to assist me with this celebratory anniversary installment of the series, bringing continuity to the series and expanding it in thought-provoking ways.

Isaac and I acknowledge that the land on which we are located and working to produce this anniversary installment is the traditional territory of the Haudensaunee and Anishinaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldimand Treaty territory. We humbly offer the lessons and insights of this installment with respect for and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states who have protected the land and held it sacred for centuries.

[Description of photo 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.]

SHELLEY: Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Isaac! I am grateful to you for taking the time away from your teaching and dissertation research to produce this anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability with me.

ISAAC: Thank you for having me back, Shelley. I am very honoured to have the privilege of engaging with the remarkable interviews you conducted over the past year.

SHELLEY: Later in this installment of the series, Isaac, you and I will turn to reflect on your interview from August of last year; first, however, we have several philosophers’ interviews that I want us to showcase. For starters, let’s consider Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril’s interview from last May. As you know, Élaina received her Ph.D. last June from the University of Aberdeen and is a contributing blogger on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, primarily posting information about episodes of Philosophy Casting Call, her fantastic podcast of interviews with underrepresented philosophers.

I was very moved by Élaina’s description of the “normalized pressures of academia” that she experienced as an undergrad and the “institutional barriers” that she confronted as a graduate student, in addition to how she pointed out that the latter role often left her “in limbo” with respect to services and indeed underserved. As she explained it:

“[A]s 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…. As for my place as a quasi-staff member, I …[was] 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 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…. 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.” 

SHELLEY: Isaac, you are currently in the institutional, social, and phenomenological role that Élaina so vividly describes, namely, a disabled graduate student. What insights about the institutional life of disabled graduate students do you think we should derive from this passage of Élaina’s interview?

ISAAC: What Élaina describes as the “normalizing pressures” of academia or, more specifically, of academia’s failure to account for “asynchronous and atypical bodyminds,” tells us quite a lot about the unspoken requirements of institutional life. To inhabit an institution, whatever else may be involved, is to internalize its various rhythms of temporality such that we learn to structure how we experience time in ways that are synchronous with how time is already structured.

As a result, the experience of time in academia (and other spaces configured by the demands of capitalism) is never value neutral, but rather deeply moralistic, where achieving institutional synchronicity is often sold to us as a simple story of having good “work ethics,” and generally, being a good colleague and a good sport. In order to plug in to the “life of the department,” as Élaina mentioned, there is not only the temporal commitment of “showing up,” but also a need to synchronize with the various temporal rites in the spaces that we show up to; for example, to give immediate feedback at a speaker’s event, to ask very specific questions that help generate an atmosphere of engagement, to have snappy “elevator pitches” of our research readily available when called upon, and so on.

Bodyminds are never inherently asynchronous or atypical; instead, such expressions index the way that bodies and minds are experienced as out-of-place in relation to institutional regimes of temporality. This is not to say that we should never try to manage our time in ways that might be more workable for us; but the way “time management” gets outsourced entirely as a personal responsibility is particularly insidious. We are made responsible for maintaining the regime of temporality that institutions claim to uphold; and when it fails us, we are meant to absorb that failure as a personal and moral deficit on our part, as us being “undisciplined,” “lazy,” “irresponsible” with our time, and as having “poor” work ethics. By contrast, rigidly upholding standards that are unworkable for some bodyminds is often interpreted as a kind of “tough love.” It can even be regarded as institutional commitment to “integrity” and “academic excellence” which is compromised by extending “accommodations” to the “undeserving.” We see this kind of rhetoric, for example, surrounding MIT’s recent decision to reinstate the SAT as among its admission requirements.

This temporal dimension of institutional life extends far beyond academia. In Christine Overall’s recent interview, she talked about her negotiation with the temporality of retirement and old age, and the need to confront the ageist framing of aging as nothing more than decline and increasing social and familial burden. I’ve learned quite a lot from reading Christine’s work on the intersection of ageism and ableism, especially her work on the institutional roles as administrative irregularities to which disabled and aging bodies are often consigned in order to produce a kind of bureaucratic legibility—that is, their constitution as problems in need of managerial solutions. In describing her mother’s situation in a residential institutional setting, Christine explained how the condition of “regimentation, isolation, lack of stimulation, and stringent rules imposed regardless of individual variations,” which characterizes institutional temporality, exacerbates the psychological stress of the pandemic:

“My mother and the other residents are paying a price for the freedoms of others. Although my mother can be compelled to remain in the residence and not have visitors, staff cannot be compelled to be vaccinated. About 20% of the staff have, for whatever reasons, chosen not to be vaccinated. Thus, when residents have tested positive, their infections have all come from staff and essential caregivers. Then the residents—who have faithfully done everything right, including wearing masks, staying two meters from others, and getting vaccinated—are forced to quarantine in their rooms for at least fourteen days. […]

The residence is run on a model that values physical safety from COVID-19 above all else. At the beginning of the pandemic, when little was known about the virus, that was sensible. But after more than a year, people like my mother are paying the price in terms of lack of stimulation, lack of variation in their environment, loss of in-house activities, loss of connections with loved ones, and loss of physical touch. It’s as if their psychological, social, and cognitive wellbeing do not matter.”

ISAAC: Shelley, in your recent article, “Philosophy of Disability, Conceptual Engineering, and the Nursing Home-Industrial-Complex,” you talked quite comprehensively about the structural gaslighting and eugenic practices of the nursing home-industrial-complex. What do you think Christine’s remarks reveal about these carceral institutions?

SHELLEY: Isaac, thank you so much for drawing attention to this aspect of Christine’s interview. I was very grateful that Christine made remarks about the carceral dimensions of the institution in which her mother resides, in part because I think that philosophers have ignored how elder residences, so-called long-term care institutions, group homes, psychiatric wards, and other congregate residential institutions for certain marginalized populations operate in society at present, what carceral functions they serve, how they construct certain subjects as disposable, and how they contribute to the constitution of the apparatuses of disability, age, race, class, and gender, among others.

Christine notes in her interview that prior to the pandemic her mother experienced a relative degree of freedom at her residence with respect to her movements and activities, as well as the opportunity to entertain visitors. During the pandemic, however, her mother and other residents of the institution in which she lives, although vaccinated, have been confined to their rooms to prevent COVID transmission and infections. The mandatory confinement to their own rooms of vaccinated residents at the institution in which Christine’s mother resides, that is, the institution’s control of spatiality and mobility, in addition to the imposition of institutional temporality, throws into relief the carceral and punitive character of these residences for elders and younger disabled people.

Despite appearances, these residences too are “total institutions,” to use Erving Goffman’s (1961) provocative term. As total institutions, they constitute significant mechanisms of government. The segregation into distinct populations of the residents, the visitor restrictions, and the confinement to one’s own space—all aspects that Christine mentions—typify the asymmetrical relations of power that characterize total institutions. Total institutions operate according to an economy of scale whereby individuality is both erased and naturalized. Indeed, the “handling of many human needs by the bureaucratic organization of whole blocks of people … is the key fact of total institutions,” according to Goffman. People in total institutions are moved to action in “blocks” in this way, Goffman pointed out, so that personnel whose primary activities are observation and surveillance can more efficiently supervise the people.

In short, elder residences, nursing homes, group homes, and other similar congregate settings constitute an element of what Foucault referred to as “the carceral archipelago,” and philosophers should recognize them as such. In the carceral archipelago, as Foucault envisioned it, institutions (such as nursing homes), which are not usually associated with the prison, with the carceral, and with the punitive, are in fact “islands” of the carceral whose architecture, routines, schedules, and purposes mirror the physical and conceptual design and functions of the prison. As Foucault sardonically asked, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

Isaac, philosophers increasingly attend to marginalized populations. Yet the pandemic has made evident that the living circumstances of elder and younger disabled people confined in congregate residential settings and elders and younger disabled people themselves are among the phenomena that feminist and other philosophers have not adequately recognized as worthy of critical attention. My work on nursing homes has gotten recognition from some Foucault scholars in large part, I think, due to the interest in subjugated knowledges and hidden histories that they share with Foucault. Indeed, in his interview for Dialogues on Disability last July, Will Conway, who is a disabled graduate student, suggested this motivation for his own interest in Foucault’s work. In one place during the interview, Will remarked:

“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 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.

[…] 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….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.” 

SHELLEY: Isaac, what is your assessment of Foucault’s historical analyses for critical examination of the apparatus of disability and other apparatuses of power?

ISAAC: I think Foucault’s historical analyses offer us a neat methodological alternative for how philosophy can be done. Instead of just taking a concept and haphazardly asking “what is it?,” we are compelled to trace the historical trajectories that configured and gave shape to their discursive formations. So instead of asking, for example, “what is madness?” as if we are already dealing with some kind of discrete naturalized notion, we can consider questions such as “When did madness become synonymous with the medicalized notion of so-called mental illness for which we seemingly have no rational alternative?” or “How has the discursive deployment of the term madness by medical and political institutions configured the meaning of individual bodies made to suffer its designation?”

I find it tremendously liberating to do philosophy without being constrained by the “what is” form of the question, which, while useful for drawing distinctions, often results in misleading reifications when approaching networks of relations. The kind of historical analyses Foucault offers isn’t a roundabout way of answering the “what is” question; instead, the question might be formulated as “when is it?” or “how is it possible?” with the understanding that the “when and the how refer not to a fungible background for the occurrence of a stable and unchanging what, but rather to key components in the constitution of a relational assemblage. While the deployment of concepts such as madness and disability takes on a veneer of universality, it’s always important to remember that they are intensely local matters. Their meanings are not set in stone, but always depend on the very spatial and temporal ways that individual bodyminds negotiate with their habitus.

So, I absolutely agree with Will that the critics asserting that Foucault forecloses the possibility of revolutionary action are missing the mark. If the objection is that revolutionary actions require some sort of absolute instead of the more relativized notion of a “historical a priori” that Foucault aimed for, then it might be time we re-evaluate the very limited imaginations of that supposed “revolutionary” mindset.

A lot of my current fascination with infrastructure is precisely concerned with how it might be possible for philosophy—seemingly unreflexive of the methodological limitations of the “what is” question—to even approach something as unstable and recursive as infrastructure. Much of the current discourse in philosophy seems to take for granted the idea that infrastructure comprises large, bulky material systems, the philosophical concerns related to which are primarily ethical, over the “civilizational” and “ecological” impact that they have. I don’t want to dismiss this view, but I think philosophers who hold it are missing a key aspect of the philosophical dimension of infrastructure that we can begin to excavate by historicizing it. I briefly tried to do a little bit of that when you asked me about the subject during my interview. As I said:

“We get the word infrastructure from 19th century French railroad engineering, and when first adopted into English it was a fairly technical term that initially referred not to built structures like the railroad itself, but the organizational work conducted at the site before tracks could be laid (processes that are literally beneath the – hence ‘infra’ – structures). It became a more general military jargon adopted in the twentieth century to denote all manners of fixed installations (airfields, fuel tanks, pipelines, etc.) that enable and facilitates effective military operations, and would later on be the term which shapes the developmental imaginary of cold war politics. (It’s also around this time we hear Ronald Reagan for example, talk about investing in ‘the infrastructure of democracy’ as a way of rebranding jingoist and exploitative foreign policies) Outgrowing its military roots, the word now principally refers to any underlying foundation of a nation’s economy, thus public institutions like schools, hospitals, banks, public transit, and increasingly the internet sometime gets pulled together in this expanded definition of infrastructure.

[…] What we mean by ‘infrastructure’ has been evolving in relation to the arrangement of our material, technical, and social structures. And 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 complex operates. … Infrastructure can no longer be taken merely to mean a material substrate that’s literally under us. And we hear politicians and activists increasingly adopting the word to talk about operations of dispersed power structures in society, for example, an ‘infrastructure’ of racism as processed by practices such as redlining, gentrification, and suburban sprawl.”

ISAAC: My interest in infrastructure initially developed when I began to consider how disability radically destabilizes prevailing notions of subjectivity. I found an affinity especially with your Foucauldian approach, Shelley. How do you understand the interconnection between disability and infrastructure?

SHELLEY: Isaac, your writing has certainly helped me to understand the concept of infrastructure in a more comprehensive way than I had. This comprehensive understanding of infrastructure is more amenable to a historicized and relativized understanding of disability as an apparatus than earlier, more limited, ways in which to understand infrastructure. On an expansive understanding of infrastructure, like the conception that you recommend, a range of phenomena that operate as mechanisms of the apparatus of disability become recognizable.

So, for example, when we work with this expansive understanding of infrastructure to identify how the medicalized conception of disability is reproduced, we should consider (for instance) how disability is framed in the context of research instruments such as the PhilPapers database or the APDA surveys; when we want to identify and analyze the eugenic impetus of the subfield of bioethics and how it is reproduced, we can count how many times over the past several years widely read bioethics journals have published articles that promote medically assisted suicide, how the arguments of these articles are advanced, which arguments get replicated, and what they omit; or if we want to know how ableism operates in philosophy to weed out disabled philosophers, we could (for instance) analyze what disabled philosophers tell us about the hiring practices and tenure requirements of their respective departments with regard to expectations for publication and conference travel.

Indeed, in her interview, Maeve O’Donovan addressed how ableism is built into faculty requirements in ways that are not at all feasible for many disabled people, especially insofar as access to supports and technology is often not made readily available or is denied. In one place in her interview, Maeve said:

“[T]hink of the typical philosophy professor. The typical philosophy professor is someone whose job is 40 percent teaching, including grading, course preparation, and student meetings; 20 percent service; and 40 percent scholarship, without which there can be no promotions in a field that is “up or out”. They work quietly for extended periods of time, often can work from home as easily as from their office, control their schedule to a large extent; and spend their time problem-solving big picture issues rather than dealing with minutiae. It is ideal for someone with ADD. Make that person a department chair under the conditions that I mention above, and everything changes. Had I taught at an R1 university, I would have had the pay, support staff, and decreased teaching load, but my scholarship expectations would have been significantly greater and equally unmeetable. That is ableism and inaccessibility.

The new job responsibilities are largely the ones with which an ADD-er struggles: managing schedules; overseeing assessment; engaging in short and long-term planning; handling crises; answering email and being available to faculty and students throughout the day and on weekends; managing a budget; filling out weekly and monthly paperwork, in addition to annual reports. Simultaneously, there is less alone/quiet time in which to do the work; a decreased ability to work remotely, which provides quiet; a decreased ability to set one’s own schedule and deadlines; and more demands on one’s social and emotional skills due to increased meetings and phone calls. Furthermore, the old job responsibilities don’t go away; there is simply less time to complete all of them. The teaching demands drop a little, while the service demands increase significantly, something like 30 percent teaching, 60 percent service, and 10 percent left for scholarship.”

SHELLEY: Isaac, if we take the more expansive approach to infrastructure that you want to advance, how should we understand Maeve’s remarks in this context?

ISAAC: Early on in Maeve’s interview, she briefly mentioned Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” This is one of the ideas to which I often return: evil, whatever else it might be, is a problem of infrastructure. And Arendt already noted this banal, administrative characteristic of evil in her earlier work Origins of Totalitarianism. Colonial administrations, she argues, were made possible not only by an imperialist racist ideology, but by its genocidal combination with bureaucracy, or, in her words, that “organization of the great game of expansion in which every area was considered a stepping-stone to further involvements and every people an instrument for further conquest.” Her use of the word game is especially instructive for me, suggesting that the logistics of bureaucracy, among other things, gamifies colonial domination and sustains the romantic fantasies of colonizers as its “dragonslayer” protagonists.

We can also see this, let’s call it “gamer mindset,” at work in Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s bizarre defense of his mass deportation of people as somehow in accord with Kant’s categorical imperative. The problem, to me, seems less that he fails to understand Kant (and, to be clear, he fails spectacularly) but rather that Kant is a managerial prop used by an exasperated gamer, who is at once “elated” over his high performance in the game, while simultaneously trying to outsource his guilt onto its mechanics which he now must disavow. What, for Arendt, is so terrifying about Eichmann is his sheer banality and unremarkability. Eichmann could be anyone anywhere: we could readily find his conflation of ethical responsibility with adherence to bureaucratic standards everywhere in modern life. For example, no employer paying minimum wage has a deeply held ethical argument about its livability; they do it because that’s what they can legally get away with. Adherence to established bureaucratic procedures become the perpetual alibi for which they can outsource any and all ethical responsibilities.

This is not to say that all banalities lead to evil. But with regard to Maeve’s experiences, the university administration is one place where organizational banalities often sustain an oppressive infrastructure. The duty of maintaining institutional temporality gets delegated downwards, outsourced to someone like a department chair, with “time management” made into a personal virtue that is supposed to somehow compensate for the lack of support and resources. Practices like these make manifest systemic ableism. My experience with institutions is that, rather than wanting to address these institutional or ideological failures, their responses always involve some attempt at “gaming” their own so-called diversity commitments. We are asked to think about systemic failures through the gamified language of “box-ticking” and we are asked to celebrate the “boxes” that we did manage to tick instead of “complaining” about those that we didn’t. Sara Ahmed talks about these systemic failures in On Being Included, that is, talks about how institutional attempts to be “good at diversity” are often little more than bureaucratic exercises for passing auditing requirements (upon which ethical commitments are outsourced).

When we think about institutions and their governing mechanisms, we often associate them with spaces of confinement. In this regard, you referred to nursing homes earlier in this installment, Shelley, quoting Foucault’s famous remarks about how the diagram of carcerality cuts across prisons, factories, schools, and hospitals. In Emily Heydon’s interview, she talked about the isolation and disabling functions of homeschooling, and how the organization of domestic spaces within an informal network of communal surveillance seem to generate an atmosphere of carcerality. Consider these remarks that Emily made:

“Why are conservative religious homeschooling and trauma-induced disabilities interconnected? Isolation. In other words, I think the second reason is that, in many cases, homeschooling enables children to become relatively isolated from society which allows bad situations to develop inside the home from which it is difficult for children to leave. Now obviously, not all homeschooling parents are abusive and individual experiences with homeschooling differ rather widely. But given my personal experience as someone who grew up within the conservative religious homeschooling movement and my observations of the ways that many of my homeschooled childhood friends were treated by their parents, I’d say that child abuse within the religious homeschooling community is a far more widespread problem than most people on the outside believe it is.

I think that, growing up, it was difficult for me to recognize that my family was dysfunctional, simply because so many of my friends’ families were similarly dysfunctional; furthermore, this dysfunction was largely normalized. As a child, I generally didn’t have access to school counselors or therapists or anyone else to whom I could go for advice or with whom I could talk about what life was like inside my family’s home. My parents definitely discouraged me from talking about family problems with other people, saying that doing so would be “gossip,” which was immoral. At the time, I didn’t know what Child Protective Services was or even that there was a phone number that I could call for help. When I was a teenager, my parents confiscated my phone for several months, so that I couldn’t contact anyone on the outside. I generally blamed myself for my family’s problems: I thought that it was my fault that I couldn’t be the perfect Christian daughter that the religious homeschooling community told me that I was supposed to be.”

ISAAC: Homeschooling seems to lack some of the carceral features that characterize bureaucratized universities. Nevertheless, should we understand homeschooling through Foucault’s notion of the carceral archipelago? If so, how?

SHELLEY: I think that homeschooling is a paradigmatic example of the notion of the carceral archipelago! Among its other disciplinary and punitive functions, homeschooling (as it is usually practiced in the US context to which Emily refers) is an educational and pedagogical regime that enables conservative, Christian families to reproduce—in a culturally institutionalized and socially legitimated fashion—a rigid set of beliefs and values along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. With homeschooling (as it is generally practiced in this US context), individual households serve as “islands” of the carceral, where narrow social roles—including narrowly circumscribed aspirations and expectations for girls and women—are prescribed to children who must embody them.

.As Emily vividly describes it, the lessons that homeschooling is designed to inculcate, combined with the isolating aspects of the homeschooling regime and lack of perceptible alternatives—e.g., as exemplified by role models who do not fit these highly circumscribed social prescriptions—constitute a form of imprisonment, a form of capture that goes widely unrecognized as such. Homeschooling, in the US context to which Emily refers, epitomizes the banality of evil, including insofar as it is disabling, as Emily evocatively describes. When the apparatus of disability becomes manifest in the domesticated island of the homeschool, Emily evocatively points out, gaslighting becomes the panacea for social injustice.

In this regard, the naturalization of social injustice and indeed the naturalization of epistemic injustice are central to Amandine Catala’s work on neurodiversity, agency, colonialism, and migration. At the outset of Amandine’s illuminating interview for Dialogues on Disability in November of last year, she said:

“As is often the case with feminist philosophy, critical race theory, or philosophy of disability, once you are introduced to the relevant concepts and frameworks, you start to vividly notice the pervasiveness of the phenomena that they track in the world, and you start to view the world and understand your position and experience in it differently: namely, politically, with both more awareness and more humility, depending on the various ways in which you lack or enjoy privilege. The same was true for me with the concept of epistemic injustice, which indeed simultaneously captures and expands on some of the insights that the aforementioned fields had previously articulated: namely, that credibility and intelligibility are not natural, apolitical qualities, but are instead the product of power relations, and that the extent to which we are (not) believed and understood—that is, the extent to which our input, perspectives, concerns, and experiences are (not) sought, validated, circulated, and recognized—often depends on our membership in certain social groups.

Once you understand credibility and intelligibility in this denaturalized and politicized manner, you start to realize that power-imbued norms and practices that produce undue imbalances in credibility or intelligibility are everywhere, including in the contexts of academic migration, colonial memory, and neurodiversity, to name but these three. How does the dominance of English in analytic philosophy affect the inclusion or exclusion of non-native English users and their philosophical insights and contributions? How does the erasure or distortion of colonialism in public space, discourse, and culture affect the way contemporary social justice claims voiced by BIPOC folks are received or dismissed by Whites? How do neurotypical norms of communication, interaction, or organization affect the marginalization and stigmatization of neurodivergent people, not only in the social sphere, but also in the educational and professional spheres, including the academic sphere?”

SHELLEY: Isaac, as someone who is currently writing a dissertation on the intersecting themes of autism and infrastructure, how would you respond to the questions that Amandine poses?

ISAAC: I think Amandine’s juxtaposition of language, neurodivergence, and colonial configurations of the public is very insightful. I mentioned in my interview that my own experiences of racism and neuroableism have been intertwined, grounded in perceptions of irrationality attributed to “unclear” or “weird” use of language. As a non-native English speaker who started out in analytical philosophy, I often find quite perplexing its self-description and emphasis on “clear and precise language.” Clear and precise for whom? I have been told that the authors whose works really spoke to me are in fact “unclear,” “obscurantist,” or even “inaccessible.These judgements about what makes something “clear” and “easy to read” often seem to be based on little more than the stylistic intuition and imagined audience of whoever is using these terms. And I’m often frustrated to seemingly not share their intuitions.

The way that clarity and unclarity are so unreflexively used to categorize different modes of expression is always evident to me as a form of epistemic gatekeeping, deeming certain questions to be properly philosophical but not others. Is it really clearer to, for example, give an ahistorical definitional account to a “what is” type question than historicize the concept in question? If so, clarity for whom?

A few years ago, I talked to a feminist philosophy job candidate interviewed by my department. When she asked what I was working on, I told her that I’m considering the philosophical dimensions of infrastructures. In the course of my remarks, I said to her that it’s not helpful to ask at the outset “what is infrastructure?” because infrastructure isn’t a thing frozen in time but rather a relation that we have with different scales of material and social formations. She interrupted me, grinning, and remarked: “You just said, ‘Infrastructure. IS. A. Relation.’ Sounds like you are contradicting yourself and admitting that infrastructure IS a thing.”

She went on to suggest, unwarrantedly, why I might want to reconsider the central question of my research in a more “analytically-friendly” way and “translate” it so as to better “clarify” the “what is” form of the question instead of challenging it. I was taken aback. Earlier, this candidate had given a presentation on the ethics of care, with an impressive list of citations on relational autonomy literature, even quoting Iris Marion Young on the importance of understanding the self as a process. Yet, her remarks to me seemed to come from a very different place: namely, no matter how we may think about relations ontologically, grammatically, they are nouns, and therefore, things; furthermore, to suggest otherwise is not a “research project” but merely incorrect use of the English language.

I’m not implying that concerns for clarity are always couched in unreflexive fetishization of English grammar. But it’s important to remember that clarity is a local problem that should be attended to contextually; it’s not a universal fact that we can simply assume. Philosophers should negotiate the idiosyncratic limits of our language rather than dogmatically adhere to them.

These concerns for clarity also encapsulate a kind of monistic, universalizing methodology which Raymond Aldred discussed in his interview, particularly with respect to topics such as love and sex. In one place in the interview, Raymond, noting how certain moralistic configurations of love have been deployed to denigrate Indigenous bodies, said the following:

“[P]hilosophers of love usually try to develop their theories about romantic relationships around what they think “normal” lovers and beloveds are like in these relationships. People who deviate from what counts as normal are either left out of such theories or considered exceptions to the norm.

Furthermore, these universalistic methodologies tend to also be monistic in the sense that they assume that romantic love comes in only one form. This monistic tendency can lead to the disciplining and punishment of people who fail to conform to the corresponding universal idea of love. In one of my papers, for example, I point out that, in the context of settler colonialism, Indigenous people have been punished, controlled, institutionalized, and disciplined because their relationships and sexual activity have deviated from what settlers think love and sex are and should be… In missionary travel texts and ethnographies, for example, we can read the way that European missionaries denigrated and adopted moralistic stances to criticize the ways that Indigenous people in North America formed relationships and had sex. In addition, Indigenous bodies were locations of erotic fascinations by settlers and missionaries alike. In my view, this moralism and eroticization is related to the monistic commitments that people hold about love and sex.”

ISAAC: Love is a major theme in the context of colonization, which, as Jose Rabasa tells us, was predicated as much on the “love speech” of evangelization and protection as on the “hate speech” of conquest. As you have pointed out, Shelley, love is also mobilized as a framing device through which to understand some carceral spaces, especially nursing homes and long-term care institutions. How should we understand the use of the language of love in biopolitical contexts?

SHELLEY: That’s an excellent question, Isaac. As Raymond eloquently demonstrated in his interview, love, sex, and emotions are saturated with political meaning and are often put in the service of political and social regimes and projects, including colonialism, patriarchy, and ableism. Hence, the language that we use to signify and represent these phenomena is also always already conditioned by the (bio)political. Nursing homes and other residential institutions are cast in the social imaginary as sites of care and love; yet, among other things, the routines, schedules, and surveillances which are fundamental to the operations of these institutions throw into relief that these places are first and foremost islands of the carceral archipelago whose very existence relies upon asymmetrical relations of power.

Isaac, in January of this year, I conducted a wonderful interview with Adrian Ekezian Barton who currently works as an adjunct in both Philosophy and Gender Studies at a community college in California. I want to send a special shout-out of thanks to Adrian who very kindly did his interview for Dialogues on Disability in a very short space of time when another disabled philosopher had to withdraw from their allotted interview slot. These sorts of situations occasionally arise in the scheduling of the interviews for the series, given the complicated circumstances that disabled philosophers routinely confront. I’m always so grateful when the participants in the series generously come forward to sustain the series in the way that Adrian did.

In Adrian’s interview, he, too, addressed issues of power, affect, and embodiment that Raymond’s interview had reintroduced to the Dialogues on Disability forum. Adrian talked about how his initial attention to genealogy and bodies led him to the insights of phenomenology. In one context, Adrian said:

“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.”

SHELLEY: Isaac, Ahmed’s work superbly fuses analyses of power relations with, as Adrian suggests, phenomenological attention to the corporeal as a site of interface with the world that shapes one’s experiences. Here, then, is another account of how space, including carceral space, conditions one’s orientation with and by the world. What do you think of Adrian’s use of Ahmed to understand disability and gender?

ISAAC: As for Adrian, Sara Ahmed was for me, too, a crucial thinker for seeing the connections between institutional exercises of powers and the lived experience of bodies; how power very specifically works as a mode of directionality, orienting bodies in specific ways, such that we are directed towards certain modes of becoming and promises of futurity. It is always a pleasure reading her work, and I find in Ahmed a profound thinker of infrastructure. She talks not only about the way that objects direct and orient us; but also about the way that power is made palpable through the mediation of such objects.

When it comes to disability and gender, power does not operate exclusively, or even primarily, as obstacles for mobility or queer modes of expression, but rather as a dense infrastructural complex where futurity and happiness are already given form. That is, futurity and happiness are given form through the way that bodies are processed by ableist and heterosexist imaginaries to the extent that to turn against such imaginaries is to turn against the very notion of happiness itself. Thus, Ahmed’s figure of the feminist killjoy has always been an important companion for me with which to examine the infrastructural contours that sustain and also fracture the seeming unity of concepts that philosophers take for granted.

In discussions of Ahmed’s amazing body of work, I always want to say more about it. Given the aims of this anniversary installment, however, I will instead recommend a review of Ahmed’s new book Complaint written by Mich Ciurria, who did an interview for Dialogues on Disability in February of this year. In their interview, Mich discussed moral responsibility theory, how philosophical understandings of the notion of moral responsibility have almost always contained the individualizing and depoliticizing imprint of a hegemonic liberalism, and how gatekeepers of philosophy are often unreceptive to criticism of the way that its dominant literatures ignore the reality of oppression. In one place in their interview, Mich said:

“The god’s-eye-view approach alienates members of marginalized groups from philosophy and this subdiscipline in particular. Few women, racialized, queer, disabled, or otherwise oppressed people work in this subdiscipline. Most of the anti-oppressive work comes from privileged white feminists, and even they’re in the minority. If you look at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Moral Responsibility, an authoritative source, most of the cited philosophers appear to be nondisabled, straight, white men. I’m not cited, even though I’ve published a book and some recent papers on the topic, and yet I’m cited in the SEP entry on Feminist Perspectives on Argumentation for a paper I published in grad school. This lacuna shows how some subdisciplines work to include oppressed people and others don’t. Gatekeepers are also very unreceptive, in my experience, to critiques of distinguished philosophers like Strawson and Frankfurt, especially when those critiques argue that these distinguished figures didn’t pay attention to the injustices taking place around them.

This resistance makes me wonder whether philosophers want to take responsibility for their profession’s legacy of structural injustice. Few admit that responsibility is a political practice, let alone an unjust practice that silences, scapegoats, and gaslights oppressed people. Even philosophers who admit that the responsibility system is flawed rarely admit that it is structurally and systematically flawed, not by accident but rather because of the choices and values of dominant groups. The current arrangements of professional philosophy and the subdiscipline of moral philosophy, including work in moral responsibility, leave very little room for philosophers to own up to any oppressive wrongdoing.”

ISAAC: Shelley, what are your thoughts on the individualizing and depoliticizing ways that the language of responsibility is often deployed, especially as a strategy of neoliberalism?

SHELLEY: Isaac, I’m thrilled with the way that Mich has incorporated disability into their work on moral responsibility, importantly elaborating both philosophy of disability and moral responsibility theory in this regard. Both Mich and I have an analysis of neoliberalism and class that is absent from most other philosophy of disability.

Mich’s critical analyses of how neoliberalism and class produce, oppress, and exploit disabled people derive primarily from their engagement with Marxism and the work of disability theorists such as Marta Russell whose writing on disability and capitalism was significantly influenced by Marxism and historical materialism. My own analyses of how neoliberalism and class constitute and constrain disabled people derive primarily from Foucault’s work on neoliberalism and its entwinement with capitalism through biopower. Despite these methodological differences, both Mich and I are concerned with how neoliberalism individualizes and depoliticizes subjugation, “responsibilizing” people for their own subjugated social position, that is, holding them responsible for their own subordinated status and its “improvement.”

Jane Dryden was my last interviewee in the series during the past year. In my interview with Jane last month, she spoke about the growth of her work in philosophy of disability, especially with respect to vulnerability and relational autonomy; coming to identify as autistic after conducting that work from the perspective of a nondisabled person; and her efforts to improve accessibility for faculty and students on her campus. Indeed, in her interview, Jane offered some incredibly valuable guidance to faculty and students who aim to increase the extent to which their own campuses are accessible to a range of disabled people. Isaac, consider these remarks that Jane made:

“For about a decade, I have attempted to incorporate universal design principles into my courses by paying attention to flexibility in the structure of the course, flexibility in assessments and due dates, and so forth. Students have the option of earning participation marks by sharing their course notes, which I then make available to everyone… Most of all, I try to explain to students, as transparently and clearly as I can, why I make the decisions that I do in all my courses. I ask students to let me know if something doesn’t work for them—both by encouraging them to approach me directly and by providing anonymous feedback options online…. At the faculty end of things, I was a member of a short-lived committee on accessibility on campus where I advocated for attention to faculty and librarian needs. I have also tried to provide resources and suggestions in an ad hoc way when asked by the faculty union or by disabled faculty members. … The provision of a clear and fair policy for faculty accommodations became a major bargaining issue in our last strike.

Some of the issues at stake involved: greater autonomy for the disabled employee; the recognition that academic labour involves more than just teaching; pushing back against a binary that a faculty member is wholly able to work or needs to stop working and go on long term disability; ensuring that the accommodation process can be initiated even if someone does not yet have a medical diagnosis. It’s imperative to try to reduce the extra labour of seeking accommodations. So, one of the things that I stressed while serving on this committee is the importance of having a clear pathway for a faculty member or librarian seeking accommodation, including making it explicit exactly who they should talk to.

[…] These probably sound like incredibly basic things. They are. I also recognize that the focus on accommodations themselves can seem overly connected to a medical model of disability. It is very difficult to push back against the assumption that epistemic authority over disability rests with health-care professionals. … I see work on faculty accommodation as something that must be done alongside more long-term advocacy for accessibility on campus…. One thing that I would really like, going forward, is greater solidarity and collaboration between work on accessibility for students, staff, and faculty.”

SHELLEY: Isaac, I think that Jane’s wish for increased solidarity and collaboration between students, staff, and faculty with respect to accessibility suggests a new way in which to respond to the corporatization of the university which, given austerity measures and institutionalized ableism, resolves “complaints” about inaccessibility through what Ahmed refers to as “non-performatives.”  As a disabled graduate student who has encountered significant obstacles with respect to inaccessibility, what do you think of Jane’s proposal?

ISAAC: Solidarity and collaboration among students, staff and faculty is something that I, too, would like to see happen and I am cautiously optimistic about its promises. At the same time, I am wary of the ways that the language of collaboration can sometime be used to disguise the added burdens placed on disabled people to help “educate” or perform a kind of de facto therapy work for their nondisabled peers rather than employed to motivate any systemic transformation. There is a danger that the language of solidarity and collaboration can be co-opted by neoliberal institutions into the kind of non-performative commitments to which Ahmed refers. We should always be on the look-out to see whether the use of such languages is maintaining or transforming organizational values.

So, what I especially like about Jane’s reflections is her attentiveness to the necessity of pushing back against the institutional tendency to outsource accessibility in individualizing and medicalizing ways, that is, as a personal responsibility for those “seeking accommodations.” Making accommodations accessible is not an unimportant part of disability advocacy, but like Jane, I agree that an overemphasis on accommodations can seem problematically over connected with the medical model of disability. As philosophers, I think it’s important to understand disability advocacy as in addition a deeply philosophical practice, one that interrogates many of the questions that philosophers should be interested in, such as the nature of subjectivity, of power, of institutional organization, of epistemic injustice, and of the material and social contours of embodied life.

SHELLEY: Isaac, what a fantastic note on which to end this seventh-anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability. It has been such a pleasure to collaborate with you on this anniversary edition of the series. I always learn from your insightful and transgressive remarks. So, I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to put together this long and lively addition to the Dialogues on Disability archive.

I also want to convey my deepest thanks to all my interviewees from the past year who entrusted me with their stories and shared their experiences and knowledges with all of us. It is their generosity and courage that make the series possible.

Finally, let me end this anniversary installment with thanks to everyone who has tuned in to Dialogues on Disability during the seven years in which the series has run thus far. Together, we are changing philosophy.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to our remarks, ask questions about the interviews we’ve highlighted, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

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, May 18th at 8 a.m. EST for the eighty-sixth 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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