Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Gen Eickers

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the ninety-first 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 ancestral territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldimand Treaty territory. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect for and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states who, for thousands of years, have held sacred the land, water, and air, as well as their inhabitants and who, for centuries, have protected them from the ravages of colonialism and expropriation.

My guest today is Gen Eickers. Gen is currently interim professor of epistemology at the University of Bayreuth. Their work is interdisciplinary, combining theory with empirical research, and is located at the intersections of philosophy of mind, social ontology, and social epistemology. Gen’s main research interests are emotion, social interaction, social norms, and gender. Their non-academic interests include community organizing, seeing art and making art (mostly creative writing and photography), spending time in nature, and weightlifting.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Gen! You did an interview for the Dialogues on Disability series in November 2018. At the time, you were completing your Ph.D. at Freie Universität Berlin and Berlin School of Mind and Brain. Please bring us up to date on what has taken place in your life since late 2018 and the outcomes of your dissertation research.

Thank you for inviting me to do a second interview, Shelley!

A lot has happened since late 2018. As you said, I was completing my Ph.D. during that time–more specifically, I was starting to prepare for my Ph.D. defense in March 2019. I took some weeks after the defense to focus on myself and, throughout this time, mostly engaged with art and community organizing. That organizing, and my previous involvement in organizing art events, resulted in me organizing and hosting a queer art night called Fuck Me Tender that took place in Berlin in May 2019. At Fuck Me Tender–which was a beautiful, one-night celebration of queerness–we showed films, drawings, performances, and photographs.

Because it was so successful, Fuck Me Tender was set to have a second run in 2020, which, sadly, we cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. By that point, community organizing had become an important part of my life; so, I was very sad that it was no longer possible to organize and host big events. Nevertheless, together with Sarah Berger, who is a close friend of mine and a photographer and author, I had started organizing a smaller queer literature event called Ruhe, which we were able to host a couple of times during the pandemic–with COVID safety precautions. At Ruhe, we had queer authors read their prose and poetry to a fairly intimate audience; for some of our sessions, we also had a musical act perform during the intermission.

I think that community organizing had become so important to me, in part, because it fulfilled functions that academic philosophy could not quite fulfill. Even though I am now doing trans and queer philosophy, I believe that the question “What can I give back to my community?” is more easily answered through community organizing and art than through academic philosophy. When I do trans philosophy, my (imaginary) audience has to be cis and not queer in order to get published. There are, of course, some exceptions: for some journals and special issues or invited contributions to volumes, my imaginary audience does not necessarily have to be queer and cis; it depends on who edits and reviews the publications.

Still, the framing is more restrictive than in peer-to-peer art events and community organizing. When I organize a queer/trans community event, the audience will be primarily queer or trans–depending on the specifics of the event–and I must imagine the audience to be queer and trans in order to organize an event that actually draws queer and trans people. I think, too, that even when writing philosophy or theory aimed at a trans and queer audience, doing so would not resolve the class divide that exists between an academic queer and trans audience and non-academic queer and trans communities. Community organizing, I believe, can do that more easily. Engagement in community organizing has also hugely enriched my thinking and the way that I do philosophy and theory.

[Description of photo below: Gen, who is listening to music through earbuds, stands in a cornfield in the south of Germany on a sunny day. The sun, whose rays shine through tall cornstalks behind Gen and conceal a portion of their face, sits in a bright blue sky that has patches of cloud.]

Shortly after my defense, I went on the academic job market for the first time ever and, in July 2019, I started a postdoc position at the University of Education in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where I began to research the digital social practices and digital experiences of LGBTQ+ people.

2019 was also a year of important changes in my personal life, which have had considerable impact on my professional life and even on my research. I often think about how much time transitioning takes and the ways in which the prevalent perception that transitioning is something that just happens on the side is so wrong. What tends to be ignored is that transitioning often involves complex decisions and even complicated bureaucratic processes that take a long time.

Think of how many certificates that we acquire over a lifetime and the fact that our name is on every single one of them and that our gender marker is on many of them. These documents and other forms of identification are not changed overnight. Furthermore, the people responsible for handing out certain documents or certificates may be reluctant about changing them retroactively. In addition, transitioning can also affect the professional and social interactions that you have, as well as the social possibilities that you have.

I explore these matters in “Being Trans, Being Loved: Clashing Identities and the Limits of Love,” my contribution to The Moral Psychology of Love, in which I look at how, for trans people, the possibility of romantic love comes with limits. To me, it does seem that trans people are perceived differently now than they were in 2018, when I did my first Dialogues on Disability interview–or at least it seems so in Germany. I think that public perceptions of trans people here have both improved and worsened; and I think that this shift might be true of how trans people are perceived and interacted with in academic philosophy too.

The impact that gender and norms around gender have on social interactions is also reflected in my dissertation and my ongoing work. I have looked at how gender, as an aspect of social identity, influences social interactions and how social norms around gender essentially shape the way that we interact with one another. In the first interview with you, I pointed out that my dissertation criticized the way that social cognition and interaction have been conceptualized in philosophy. In one place, I said: “Theoretical energies have focused too narrowly on a small range of accounts of social cognition…[T]hese accounts…tend to ignore social context and the influence of social phenomena such as gender, race, and status on social perception.” This critical assessment of how social cognition is conceived of in philosophy led me to begin to develop an alternative model of social cognition and interaction in my dissertation.

Scripts are the central tool of this model. In my understanding (still!), scripts play an important role in social cognition and interaction–scripts are context-dependent knowledge structures that describe social roles, situations, and aspects of identity. In the dissertation, I argued that scripts can account for many social cognition scenarios and that they often make mental state attribution obsolete. The main example that I used in my dissertation is emotion recognition, as a kind of social cognition. I argued along the following lines: If emotions are heavily influenced by social norms, emotional display and emotion recognition must be heavily influenced by social norms, too. These factors are not properly accounted for by standard theories of social cognition. Scripts, on the other hand, provide a rich and promising resource because scripts can describe how social norms manifest on an individual level.

Some of this work, too, has been published–for example, in “Emotion Recognition as a Social Skill,” my contribution to The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Skill and Expertise, which I co-authored with Jesse Prinz and, more recently, in my article, “Coordinating Behaviors: Is Social Interaction Scripted?” I am super happy that this latter article is out in the world and especially happy about its home, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. More is to come; and I am currently working towards publishing the dissertation as a book–which, unfortunately, I have had to delay due to unexpected family circumstances and the pandemic.

My work on the constitutive relations between scripts, social interaction, and emotion will stick around with me for a long while, I think–it’s something that fascinates me deeply and something about which I continue to discover new aspects. The focus of my research in this area will, for the coming months, be discrimination and marginalization in social interactions, including emotion. For example, I have co-authored a paper with Arina Pismenny and Jesse, where we lay out a taxonomy of emotional injustice. And, as you know, I have written a chapter on the emotional marginalization of trans and disabled identities for the forthcoming collection, The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability.

Gen, as you have now mentioned, you wrote a chapter for The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability, a collection that I’ve edited. Please outline your arguments in the chapter for readers and listeners of this interview. In particular, how does your argument in the chapter articulate your interest in affective injustice and disabled and trans identities?

In my chapter, “Pathologizing Disabled and Trans Identities: How Emotions Become Marginalized,” I argue that the pathologization of trans and disabled identities is ultimately connected to a phenomenon that I frame as emotional marginalization. This framing becomes clear when we look at how disability, transness, and emotions have repeatedly been constructed as natural phenomena (or, as “unnatural deviations”) rather than social phenomena. I argue that this failure to investigate the social constitution of emotions ultimately reinforces and reproduces the marginalization of emotions that members of subordinated social groups experience.

Marginalized people seemingly fail to comply with the social norms around emotional experience and emotional expression. Trans people might disappoint gendered expectations around emotional behavior, for example. And disabled people might disappoint ableist expectations around emotion. Emotions are phenomena that are embedded in the social world: if we grant that marginalization and injustice take place on a social level, we must also grant that marginalization and injustice take place on an emotional level. In the chapter, I analyze how emotional marginalization of trans identities and disabled identities is experienced and how emotional marginalization affects trans people and disabled people, considering, in particular, how this emotional marginalization results from the long histories of pathologization of them. I will present some of this work at the upcoming Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 3 conference.

My interest in injustice is mostly based on my interest in social interaction and emotion; so, these areas of inquiry are ultimately connected for me. The topic emotional injustice also plays a big role in the Network for Critical Emotion Theory that Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Imke von Maur, and I have founded. Our network is a call for change in emotion research: in some approaches to emotion theory and research, emotion has (implicitly) been conceived of as a phenomenon that is removed from our social world and from our everyday lives. The network wants emotion to be understood as something that is essential to people’s lives, as a central part of people’s beings. We build on researchers and thinkers who have been pioneering this idea, including Sara Ahmed, Arlie Hochschild, and bell hooks.

To me, everyday kinds of injustice–that is, injustice that’s embedded in how we interact with one another on a daily basis, including how we understand each other’s emotions and how we display emotions to one another–are the most interesting kinds of injustice to figure out theoretically. I am convinced that the ways in which we learn emotion and emotion understanding not only differ from culture to culture but also, within any given culture, are traversed by structures of power and hierarchy. Emotion norms differ depending on the identities that one embodies and the social groups of which one is part. There’s interesting work on emotion norms and social practices by one of my all-time favorite emotion theorists, Arlie Hochschild. Agneta Fischer looks at this, too–more from a psychology perspective.

The connection between such norms and marginalization and injustice is actually complex. Emotion norms seem to be born out of certain ways in which society is structured, namely, to benefit white, cisgender, heterosexual, nondisabled men, for example. But I think that this origin of emotion norms does not preclude white cis heterosexual nondisabled men from experiencing affective injustice or emotional marginalization. Perhaps the way that emotion norms work constitutes affective injustices for this group too. Even for men who fulfill all or some of the criteria that are typically considered to benefit someone in the current social arrangement, norms around emotion and social interaction can easily backfire. Thinking about the connection between emotional injustice and emotional marginalization is part of the work that I’m planning to do in the coming months.

Gen, you have said that to be nonbinary and trans in academic philosophy has become both easier and more difficult than it was in the past. What has become more difficult to withstand and how have things become easier? What more work needs to be done?

As I mentioned, I think transitioning can also affect professional social interactions and relations. The ways that it affects these interactions can be subtle or irrelevant, affirming or non-affirming, or all of these things simultaneously. What’s even more pronounced than changes in social interactions and relations is the attention that trans topics–or rather, “the” trans debate–currently receive. By “the” trans debate, I mean debates that concern the very existence of trans people: usually, these debates revolve around the right to self-determination of gender–currently, a hot topic in Germany and the U.K. because of discussions about draft laws or possible future laws.

I notice an increase in the utterance, by academic philosophers, of both affirmative and trans-critical media positions, media coverage on “the trans debate” with philosophers, as well as commentaries and statements on the subject by philosophy institutions and organizations. At present, there’s a considerable number of public philosophy pieces on trans issues published and even some academic papers on these issues. In many cases, these public philosophy items and academic articles are written by philosophers who do not work on trans philosophy, nor even on gender, and who are not trans themselves.

While, on an optimistic reading, some of these pieces might be considered clumsy and uninformed, others deserve to be labelled as outrightly transphobic. Like all forms of discrimination, transphobia occurs at different levels of discourse and practice. For example, everyday transphobia that appears to be subtle may be observed in the form of a trans-exclusive dating practice. At the other end of the spectrum, more obvious and explicit cases can be observed, such as anti-trans laws. Consider the important work of Talia Mae Bettcher, who has argued that transphobia may best be explained as a denial of authenticity: that is, the self-identification of trans people is not recognized.

In Germany–and probably elsewhere too–transphobic statements have at times been rendered permissible, and even embraced, by appeal to notions of academic freedom; that is, when someone has said, “Gender is not real; we should rely only on sex” (to determine whether a person is a man or a woman), their view has been protected with an appeal to a notion of academic freedom. The irony of this construal of academic freedom is that the expertise that scholars in trans studies and gender studies have brought to the table for years and, in some cases, decades, gets entirely ignored. If we accept this view as an academic position, we accept that philosophy of gender, trans philosophy, and gender studies are not legitimate academic disciplines or, at least, not disciplines that have produced any worthwhile kind of knowledge.

The persistence of this particular debate is one reason why being trans (and nonbinary) in academic philosophy has become more difficult. As a trans philosopher, there’s a very personal aspect to having your identity attacked on a regular basis by people working in the same field–it’s exhausting and, even if you are a trans philosopher who does not work on trans philosophy or gender, it will affect you. If you are a trans philosopher who researches and teaches on trans philosophy, keeping up your work in the area may be especially difficult and begin to feel pointless and hopeless, as if it doesn’t make a difference. Why continue to do work in your area of expertise if other people–in the same profession–ignore your expertise?

There are some positive developments, too: for every transphobic piece of writing, there is an array of academic philosophers–cis or trans, queer or not queer–speaking out against it, sometimes calling the problem by its name. I find this pushback to be a very positive development and one that, perhaps, I would not have imagined a couple of years ago. This resistance and solidarity are the upside of the spotlight into which trans issues have moved. From my personal experience, furthermore, people have gotten better at using neutral address in an email, better at using they/them pronouns (or no pronouns in German), and just more comfortable being in a room, or on a team, or in an organization, with a trans person.

You have initiated a project that examines the effects of social media on LGBTQ+ identities and the social media practices of LGBTQ+ people. Please describe the project and what motivated you to initiate it.

In July 2019, I started a postdoc with a grant project on digitization at the University of Education in Ludwigsburg, Germany. Within this project, I had developed my own subproject to look at the experiences and effects of digitization–and, in particular, of social media–on LGBTQ+ people and the digital social practices of LGBTQ+ people. Since data on this topic is sparse, and, furthermore, because I believe that we need data about lived experiences of marginalized people in order to say anything about these lived experiences, I conducted a qualitative study. With the help of two student assistants, I interviewed twenty-five LGBTQ+ people about their digital experiences. Over the course of the study, social media became the focus of the study, though it had not really been determined as such at the outset by the study itself. I find this outcome interesting as it shows just how significant a role that social media has come to play in our lives–and, perhaps, particularly so in the lives of marginalized folks.

Even though the project on digitization has ended and my time in Ludwigsburg is ending as I move on to another affiliation, the subproject on LGBTQ+ social media experiences and practices will continue to accompany me for a while; and it has heavily influenced my diving deeper into trans and queer philosophy. In 2020, I published “Digital Change and the ‘Trust Deficit’: Ethical and Pedagogical Implications–First Results of the German Research Project ‘DigitalDialog21’,” an article on digital change and marginalization that I co-authored with Matthias Rath. In 2021, I published a second article on digital change and marginalization with Mattias, which is entitled “Digital Change and Marginalized Communities: Changing Attitudes towards Digital Media in the Margins.” In addition, my essay on digital technology and LGBTQ+ experiences–“Influencing Corporealities: Social Media and its Impact on Gender Transition”–is forthcoming in a volume on feminist technologies. I recently finished writing another paper that focuses on the role that social media plays with respect to feelings of belonging for LGBTQ+ people.

Gen, tell us about the podcast on trans issues that you created and produce with a friend and colleague.

Our podcast trans sein (the English translation of which is “being trans”) is a podcast that deals with everything about being trans in an informative and educational, but funny and approachable, way. The main podcast team is my friend and colleague Sophie Rauscher and me. We are the broadcasters that people hear when they listen to the podcast. In the past few months, we have made a couple new additions to our team who help us with the post-production process.

Like many others new podcasters, we started the podcast in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was formed quickly: before the pandemic, we had engaged in a lot of private conversations around the topics that we now explore publicly in the podcast. The podcast quickly became quite professional–primarily because Sophie is a trained journalist and is very tech-savvy. After only two years, we now have almost 3000 Instagram followers and hundreds of regular listeners of the podcast.

A lot of the people who listen to us are young and newly out as trans, as well as–importantly–not engaged in academic discourse around gender. The latter was the main motivation for us to do the podcast in German. Resources around trans identities in German are sparse, especially when it comes to peer-to-peer offerings. We may produce a couple of episodes in English, too. We need to figure out a way to make these accessible to people who speak German but who do not sufficiently understand spoken English, as that’s our main target group.

On episodes of the podcast, we often try to break down complex academicized concepts around trans identity, gender, or sexuality in ways that make them more widely accessible. We also regularly invite specialists from a wide variety of fields on to the podcast. Our guests have ranged from drag performers to psychoanalysts, from medical doctors to bodyworkers, and on to meme producers. Even though both of us have considerable expertise in different areas related to trans identity (and other aspects of identity), we try to highlight areas that lie outside our own expertise by inviting specialists in these areas. Doing so enables us to emphasize that trans experiences are manifold.

Gen, 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?

I would certainly recommend the work of everyone that I’ve mentioned in this interview. Let’s start with the co-founders of the Network for Critical Emotion Theory: Imke von Maur has a paper on emotion repertoires and the habitual dimensions of emotions entitled “The Epistemic Value of Affective Disruptability. Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic has a book forthcoming entitled Perpetrator Disgust: The Moral Limits of Gut Feelings, in which she argues for, and shows, the necessity of researching emotions in context rather than as neutral phenomena.

Zoey Lavallee is someone whose work I really value and whose philosophical interests are closely related to my own. Zoey works on desire and the nature of agency and social responsibility in the context of addiction. They recently wrote a piece for Aeon on craving, criticizing the neuroscientific picture of addiction in ways that I find helpful for thinking through medical and social models of illness and disability. I also want to recommend Kim Q. Hall’s Queering Philosophy. Unfortunately, I have not yet gotten around to reading Hall’s book; however, I recently listened to the New Books in Philosophy episode on the book and look forward to reading it soon.

Since I briefly discussed a divide between academic and non-academic communities, I would like to mention a new project in the German-speaking academic philosophy landscape: #FirstGenPhilosophers, a blog on, with, and from first generation academics in philosophy. The project is initiated by Daniel James Țurças and Barbara Vetter.

Gen, thank you very much for your incredibly thought-provoking remarks and recommendations throughout this interview. Your research on emotional marginalization and disabled and trans identities is pathbreaking. I hope that many of our readers and listeners will seek out some of this work and learn from it.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Gen Eicker’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here.

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 supports the series, enabling me to continue to create it. You can add your support for these vital interviews with disabled philosophers at the Dialogues on Disability Patreon account page here.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, November 16th for the ninety-second 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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