Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Johnathan Flowers

Hello, I am Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the ninety-fourth 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 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 Johnathan Flowers. Johnathan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Northridge. Flowers specializes in Philosophy of Race, Gender, Technology, and Disability, as well as in Japanese Philosophy and American Pragmatism. His recent publications include “Against Philosophy, Against Disability” in the Journal of Philosophy of Disability and “Bioethics Must First Burn” at Platypus the blog of CASTAC. His first monograph Mono No Aware and Gender as Affect in Japanese Aesthetics and American Pragmatism is slated for publication in April 2023 through Lexington Books.

[Description of image below: Johnathan, who is seated at a table, speaks to someone from behind a microphone. His hands are in motion to aid the explanation that he offers and his facial expression seems both challenging and questioning. A piece of paper attached to the front of the table has Johnathan’s name on it in large letters. There is a bottle of water on the table]

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Johnathan! You and I did a Dialogues on Disability interview that appeared in August 2020. Several significant changes have taken place with respect to your career in philosophy since the previous interview. Please bring our readers and listeners up to date.

The biggest change that has occurred since we last spoke concerns my institutional affiliation. In early 2022, I accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of Philosophy at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). In addition, I now serve as Vice-President of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) and as one of the advisors for the interdisciplinary initiative Rec(o)rding CripTech. I have written my first monograph, Mono No Aware and Gender as Affect in Japanese Aesthetics and American Pragmatism, which is due out in April.

The most significant thing about my new responsibilities is the way that they allow me to bring my whole self, professionally and personally, to my work. For example, in my new position at CSUN, I have been given the opportunity to develop new courses in the areas of philosophy of disability, philosophy of technology, and philosophy of race, as well as to teach East-Asian philosophy, which is my primary area. My colleagues at CSUN are eager for me to use the full breadth of my scholarship to enrich the department’s offerings.

In my work for SDS, I have attempted to push the Society in a direction that is more inclusive of the experiences of disabled people of color and that decenters the whiteness of disability studies with which I have contended since I began to work in the area of disabled philosophy and philosophy of disability. Much of the work in the field centers the white experience of disability.

Insofar as disabled philosophy, philosophy of disability, and disability studies misses the crucial differences that white supremacy makes in the lives of disabled black persons and disabled people of color broadly, these areas of inquiry will continue to center a white experience of disability. The underlying assumption is that all disabilities are experienced in the same way, regardless of race and gender, which is most certainly not the case. The persistence of the centrality of whiteness in scholarship about disability has maintained the multiple marginalization of disabled people of color by reinforcing a white supremacist status quo.

Even if we take something like the medical model of disability or the social model of disability, whatever your view on the validity of the latter model itself, if you do not include race into the organization of the models, you fail to account for the experience of disabled persons of color. Access to healthcare and medicine, upon which the medical model is predicated, is a privilege that is not shared by many people of color. As a result, the diagnostic criteria used to determine disability are themselves structured around white supremacy and reproduce it, denying access to accommodations by not diagnosing people of color as disabled.

Likewise, if your social model of disability does not account for the organization of social space around whiteness, then the social production of disability will be the social production of white disability. Insofar as spaces take on the shape of the bodies that participate in them, a social model that does not understand social space to be constituted along lines of race or that does not understand that social spaces and that how they produce disability might vary across cultures presumes a default way in which the social organization of the world disables persons. Such a model cannot, for example, account for Black ASL or how the social perception of ADHD in Black children often causes their symptoms to go overlooked as simply a facet of an oppositional Black identity. I want to bring this kind of work into my classroom and into my participation in the broader field of disability in the academy.

Johnathan, you understand your research and writing on disability to have taken a more radical approach since the last interview. How would you explain this process?

In thinking of how I might answer this question, I think that I need to explain what I mean by “radical.” A quotation from Sara Ahmed comes to mind: “A queer crip politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole.”

In my own view, a true disabled philosophy or philosophy of disability would refuse to cover over what is missing, would refuse to aspire to the kind of “wholeness” of mind or of body that philosophy presupposes as a requirement for merely doing philosophy; it would refuse to aspire to make philosophy itself “whole” by conforming to what “good” philosophy looks like, or what philosophy is “supposed” to do.

To this end, the radicality in my work consists in how it makes clear that disabled philosophers, disabled philosophy, and philosophy of disability do not need to aspire to wholeness. Rather, the field of philosophy must aspire to change to accept disabled philosophers and disabled philosophy as they are.

I began some of this work in “COVID-19 and the Disinheritance of an Ableist World,” and I extended it in my post on Platypus, the CASTAC Blog “Bioethics Must First Burn,” wherein I argue that the entire field of bioethics needs to be taken down to its ableist roots before it can do anything resembling a genuine ethical engagement with the political, biotechnological, and sociotechnological issues that it must confront. In other words, bioethics must first burn before something new, something valuable, can rise from its ashes.

That said, I have made this unwillingness to be aspirational or to be “whole” in the eyes of the field of philosophy explicit in “Against Philosophy, Against Disability,” wherein I argue that the field of philosophy itself engages in a two-fold opposition to, or stands against, disabled philosophers, disabled philosophy, and philosophy of disability by, first, identifying scholarship that advocates for increased philosophical engagement with the experiences of disability as “activism,” which is placed in opposition to traditional scholarship; and by, second, relying upon ableism through what Jay Dolmage calls “ableist apologia.”

By identifying philosophy and philosophers who advocate for increased engagement with the experiences of disabled persons and disabled philosophers as “activists,” the field of philosophy treats these calls as not worthy of consideration and to be ignored in favor of “serious scholarship” that adopts a distance from the subject at hand. For many philosophers, to be engaged in “activism” or the activity of “advocacy” through philosophy is not to be doing philosophy in its purest sense, that is, to be motivated by an academic or disinterested pursuit of truth. One who seeks to advance some political or social cause deviates from the “appropriate” way to do scholarship. Basically, if you take seriously disabled experience in your work, or treat disabled experiences as the starting point for your work, you’re not doing philosophy: you’re doing advocacy.

Feminist scholars, Africana scholars, and philosophers of race once faced a similar critique when they demanded both inclusion into the philosophical canon and that the field reckon with its sexist and racist past. Trans philosophers now wage a similar fight against a field which enables the laundering of transphobic bigotry as “just asking questions” or “inquiry.” My point is that what I am doing is not new.

In the second mode, I identify modes of conduct by members of the field as positioning the field against disabled philosophers through what, as I have noted, Dolmage calls “ableist apologia.” Without going too far into the text itself, I point to what Peter Railton calls the “culture of smartness,” which relies upon ableism to determine who is capable of engaging in the “work” of philosophy.

Put simply, able-bodied persons are assumed to possess an innate “gift” for philosophy, for philosophical thinking, which is denied to disabled persons by virtue of their disability. Railton’s example aligns with the work of Licia Carlson who identifies forms of “cognitive ableism” within philosophy wherein the possession of any disability is seen as an impediment to doing philosophy, regardless of its relation to one’s cognitive faculties. In short, disability, any disability, becomes the sign of an inability to do philosophy; and, insofar as the field of philosophy broadly has adopted the “culture of smartness” as its culture, philosophy will remain hostile to disabled persons.

Now, I present all of these ideas in “Against Philosophy, Against Disability,” not to ask for the compassion or tolerance of the field of philosophy for disabled philosophers or philosophy of disability, which would be one way to make philosophy whole by covering up the ableism that structures the field. Rather, I argue that disabled philosophers must become visible to refuse to aspire to make philosophy whole in the sense that it is inclusive, thus I state: “Insofar as it is our very difference which threatens the structures that keep the ideology of smartness in place and contribute to the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers from the discipline, being fully present to one another, in all of our difference, is one way that disabled philosophers and philosophers of disability can stand against philosophy as it exists, coming together to lock arms and share strength.”

By locking arms through disability, by becoming visible to one another, we can demonstrate how we embody a category that we are assumed to fail by virtue of our disability, we can become visible to one another through our difference, and we can throw the category of “philosopher” into crisis.

In short, the radicality of my position is not like Joe Stramondo’s argument about how activism can advance bioethics; rather, it is the radicality of Malcolm X’s “Bullet or the Ballot” or King’s “Black Power” or Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger;” it is a demand that we not take steps to make philosophy whole through covering over the structures of ableism that undergird it, that we not accept tolerance or merely token inclusion. It is a call to break philosophy, particularly if insisting on the validity of disabled experience and disabled philosophy and philosophy of disability is understood as damaging philosophy through the ways in which it calls attention to the ableism of philosophy itself. Following Ahmed, if disabled philosophy and philosophy of disability are seen as damaging philosophy by virtue of the way that they point out ableism within the canon, within the field, and within the activities of our colleagues, then we need to damage philosophy.

This proposal is radical indeed because I believe that most “activist” work in disabled philosophy, in philosophy of disability, in inclusion or accommodation within the field of philosophy aims at “wholeness.” That is, the work aspires to make philosophy whole through including disability. In contrast, I think that philosophy must first be broken before it can be reset such that disability is included in itself and not merely as a marginal case, or an example of liberal values of inclusion and accommodation, or as a charity case. By “broken” I mean to say that, following Ahmed, we need to expose the ways in which philosophy is already “broken,” already predicated upon ableism, already against disability before we can do any kind of work that seeks to make it “whole.”

Finally, I imagine some readers might find this “too harsh” or argue that my engagement with philosophy is motivated not by a desire to improve the field, but rather by a desire to break it, to smash the system as it were. To these readers, I would, again, present the words of Ahmed, who cites Audre Lorde: “Social forms of oppression, racism, the hatred that creates some bodies as strangers, are experienced as weather. They press and pound against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening. Lorde [writes], ‘We bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest.’”

Put another way, we should consider how the oppressive climate of ableism, of racism, of homophobia, of transphobia presses down on the most vulnerable of bodies in the field. We should consider how these bodies need to harden in order to survive the climate of philosophy. We should consider how disabled bodies, often the most fragile bodies in a space, must find new ways to harden to survive the field, to become “concrete flowers” (as Kristie Dotson puts it) in order to become known in the field. To this end, the discomfort that some readers might feel with my statements, with my work, is the discomfort of brushing against someone who has had to harden to survive the climate of the field and become so sharp that he can cut through the walls thrown up before him.

Indeed, the Dialogues on Disability series itself might be viewed as what Ahmed would call a “willfulness archive,” a collection of the ways in which disabled philosophers have refused to allow philosophy itself and the image of philosopher to be made whole. Yet I would rather draw on Ahmed’s martial metaphor and conceive of this series of interviews as an army: a collection of disabled arms locked in opposition to making the field whole, or an arsenal of sharpened spears ready to be hurtled at the edifice of the field of philosophy. To this end, disabled philosophy, disabled philosophers, and philosophy of disability is going to be sharp, it is going to be painful, and embracing this fact rather than shying away from it, rather than blunting out edges to make philosophy whole, is itself a radical proposal.

Recently, you publicly came out as bisexual. In what ways has bisexuality shaped your identities and practice, including your identity as disabled and as a philosopher of disability?

This is an interesting question. Now, I would say that it is not the case that I “came out,” but rather more the case that I confirmed what many people already knew, though, if I’m going to be Buddhist about this, there’s no difference between the two.

I would say that my bisexuality has been structured by my disability and my disability has structured my sexuality insofar as my ADHD results in things in my experience presenting themselves with equal importance. As much research into ADHD has indicated, it is not the case that people with ADHD are “easily distracted;” rather, the appearance of distraction is a manifestation of an inability to prioritize elements in experience such that all elements in experience present with equal importance. Now, it might be easy to draw a line from this experience to the inability to prioritize an attraction to the “appropriate” gender, but that is not where I’m going with this. My ADHD and bisexuality are co-constituted by my inability to explain the experience that I was having through both.

I could identify myself as bisexual; but bisexuality could not capture the depth of my experience of my sexuality. Moreover, the language that we use to talk about bisexuality did not seem to map onto my experience of my sexual orientation. Similarly, the language of experience, of phenomenal experience provided by philosophy, failed to capture the breadth of my experience of ADHD. Indeed, the closest that I have come to finding the language is through Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, and through Japanese aesthetics; however, it is only through the disorientation of my disability and sexuality that I could use the language to articulate the possibility of my experience.

To this end, I would say that in looking for the language to talk about my bisexuality—jokingly, I might say that I am neither straight, nor gay, but rather some secret third thing—I was also looking for the language to articulate my experience of disability. That said, one of the ways that my bisexuality and ADHD have mutually informed one another was through the parallels that I found in the marginalization of bisexuality and the marginalization of ADHD.

For example, a lot of the language used to minimize the experience of bisexuality was language I had also encountered in the minimization of ADHD. The argument that “bisexuals are not real,” or that they needed to “pick a side,” or were “functionally straight,” paralleled arguments that I had heard against ADHD, arguments such as “ADHD isn’t real,” or folks with ADHD “just needed to focus,” or that people, like myself, who succeeded through their ADHD “were not really disabled” all sounded like the language that I had heard about bisexuality and were very good reasons that I neither publicly disclosed my sexuality or my disability.

Now, I am not saying that my struggles to disclose my ADHD are identical to my struggles to disclose my bisexuality. They are not identical to each other. They are parallel to one another insofar as for much of my life ADHD was not taken seriously as a disability, nor was bisexuality taken seriously as sexual orientation. For example, I once tried to disclose my bisexuality as a teenager only to be cautioned against it and then told by some of my peers that it “was just a phase.” Similarly, I was often told that ADHD was something that I would grow out of and that I would learn to “control” by working hard and focusing harder. Fortunately for me, I am still happily bisexual and living somewhat happily with my ADHD.

Both bisexuality and ADHD are commonly regarded as predominantly white experiences: most of the research in queer theory and in disability studies (broadly construed) on ADHD focuses, respectively, on the experiences of white bisexuals or white men with ADHD. There is little work that accounts for how racialized stress exacerbates ADHD, nor is there a broad corpus of work that articulates the experiences of Black bisexuals. While the latter is growing as more people of color and queer Black people insist on centering their own experiences within predominantly white fields, this was not the case when I was growing into my identity as a disabled queer Black man with ADHD: my bisexuality risked being read as a sign of Black hypersexuality and my ADHD risked being read as a sign of Black oppositionality or incapacity.

My experiences of bisexuality and ADHD have provided me with a starting point to think through the ways in which both queer sexuality and disability can be constructed along normative lines, shaping my identity as a disabled philosopher and as a philosopher of disability to be critically aware of the sheer whiteness of philosophy of disability and disabled philosophy, as well as of the category of disability itself. Finally, my experiences of bisexuality and disability have allowed me to adopt a more critical orientation not just towards philosophy, but also towards the queer, black, and disabled communities in which I am supposed to be at home and in which I am often not at home.

Finally, I want to say something about the politics of disclosure, as indicated in your question. My public “coming out” is intimately tied to my disclosure of my disability, specifically where job applications were concerned. One of the things that I decided to do during the previous job application cycle was to make clear how my disability had informed my work in philosophy and my pedagogical practice. I also decided to disclose the ways in which my queerness had informed my philosophical and pedagogical work by making clear that my service commitments, my teaching, and my research all proceeded from the intersections of my identities. To this end, I leveraged my identities as the ground of my praxis, specifically indicating the ways in which it positioned me against “traditional” pedagogical practices.

All of this is to say that I came out—in both large and small ways—in every document that I produced for my applications. I disclosed my sexual orientation and identity not simply to provide context for the kinds of practices that I use in my classroom to create an inclusive space for all students, but also to decenter the imagined ideal of the straight white able-bodied cis student through the ways in which my teaching and research proceed from my own marginalization. While I cannot say for sure how this affected my applications on the market, I can say that I much prefer the application documents that I produced for the previous cycle to the more sanitized ones that I composed in the prior cycles.

In November, you did an interview with Tech Policy Press in which you addressed the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter and the subsequent migration of some philosophers to Mastodon. In the interview, you expressed a variety of criticisms of this movement. Please summarize your arguments in this regard, especially your arguments with respect to the ways in which this movement has potentially detrimental effects for disabled, racialized, and other marginalized communities.

That’s actually a fairly big ask since my arguments have expanded beyond that already lengthy interview.

My broad arguments were first that the ability to simply pick up one’s networks and move to a brand-new platform were a form of privilege not afforded to everyone. Second, Mastodon, by which I mean the broader Fediverse, is structured around norms of conduct that inherit and maintain whiteness. Third, different social media platforms have different “affordances,” they are built on different technologies, and the communities that form by means of these affordances will be significantly different than those on other sites. Finally, my newest argument is that the claim that the Fediverse’s federated structure enables freedom from oppression and marginalization on Twitter is a kind of “promise of happiness” of the sort characterized by Ahmed in her text The Cultural Politics of Emotion. I will begin there.

A promise of happiness is a promise offered by a broader sociocultural organization that happiness will follow if and only if an individual follows the line projected for them. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed describes this relation in terms of compulsory heterosexuality, race, and disability. If queer people followed the line of heterosexuality, they would attain the happiness promised by the line of heterosexuality in the form of the nuclear family and social acceptance, that is, through alignment with the path the queer person is “supposed” to follow. In this way, compulsory heterosexuality promises happiness just as ableism and racism make similar kinds of promises.

Mastodon—or the Fediverse—also makes a promise of happiness which goes something like this: the federated nature of the Fediverse promises happiness in the form of freedom from the oppression and violence of other social media platforms by virtue of its distinction from Twitter and other corporate-run platforms. In doing so, Mastodon eschews the affordances of the other platforms which the culture of the Fediverse positions as the root of the violence done on other social media platforms. Put another way, the promise of happiness of Mastodon is available to you if and only if you accept the technosocial line it projects, a line which denies the value of the affordances of other sites and, consequently, the value of these affordances for different communities.

The promise of happiness that Mastodon offers can only be accomplished through following the line projected by the modes of conduct privileged on the site. You can escape the violence of the right-wing takeover of Twitter if and only if you migrate to this other social network and reconstitute your digital self and communities in line with the standards of conduct that is privileged by that space. To be clear, these standards of conduct are drawn from the “DIY coder” space, a very white space, regardless of the history of the Fediverse as developed by queer and trans developers who sought a place away from the marginalization of Twitter. To this end, the promise of happiness and the modes of conduct that are required to accomplish it inherit whiteness from the spaces they proceed.

Now, were it simply the fact that these norms were inherited from the white DIY coder space, then the influx of new Twitter users could have shifted them at numerous points. However, as Ahmed notes, and as Andre Brock points out in Distributed Blackness, the bodies that participate in a space inform the shape of that space. For Brock, the internet is a white space through the ways in which the affordances of the platforms that we use to navigate the internet proceed from the experience of white users. Insofar as white users are the intended users of the internet, they feel at home due to the ways in which the affordances of the platforms and the very bodies of the users themselves give rise to the internet as a space wherein their bodies do not call attention to themselves. Thus, there is a Black Twitter while “Twitter” itself is white in an unspoken way.

This line of argument gets me to the third point, which cuts right to the question you asked: the affordances of the platform. When I am talking about “affordances,” I am talking about the various features of the platform. Among the affordances of Twitter are quote tweets, retweets, hashtags, and replies. These affordances allow for users to make present their identities through the platforms in unique ways. For example, Black Twitter uses quote tweets to engage in a playful banter that parallels the Black community practice of “playing the dozens,” which consists of a light-hearted joking at the expense of one member for the amusement of the others. On Twitter, this engagement evolves into the Black Twitter practice “this you,” wherein users will quote tweet a given user and point out a contradiction between the expression of their personality and the actions in which they are engaging. “This you” becomes a mode of playful banter but also becomes a means to resist racist or other kinds of violence on the platform through the quote-tweet function.

Similarly, the disability community uses the hashtag function to align disabled users with conversations internal to the disability community. Indeed, disability as an identity becomes visible through how users participate in the conversations mediated by the hashtag functionality: the hashtag allows disabled users to find their community and participate in shared dialogue. Still further, disabled users make use of the hashtag to marshal resources and to engage in community support by circulating information about adaptations and accommodations as well as to bring others into community through activist hashtags like #cripthevote.

As I said before, communities emerge by means of the affordances of the platform. Affordances are not the sole determination of how communities form and how individuals are viewed as such; rather, affordances, in combination with the user’s existing cultural background, give rise to the ability for the user to make present their identity in a digital space. Finally, for a given user to “discover” how to be themself in a digital space, the user needs the freedom to “play” with the affordances such that they can use them to make their identity known and give rise to communities. To this end, one of the abiding concerns with the movement to the Fediverse–for Black Twitter and the disability community–is the ways in which the affordances of the new platforms, together with the cultural norms of the platform, inhibit ways of being in a digital space.

For example, one of the ongoing debates on the Fediverse is over the implementation of the quote-tweet feature and the ways that the content-warning feature are used. With respect to the quote-tweet feature, recall how I stated that the promise of happiness supplied by the Fediverse relies on the denial of the value of some affordances. In the context of the quote tweet, the prevailing position of long-time denizens of the Fediverse is that the quote tweet is solely a tool for violence and that any use of the quote-tweet function is overwhelmingly to draw other users to “dog pile” or engage in targeted harassment. This denial ignores the ways that the quote-tweet feature is a valuable community-building feature given the ways that it is taken up by different communities of users.

In contrast, the content-warning feature is native affordance to the Fediverse and one which is deployed in racialized ways. Many instances have a “no politics” or a “politics under content warnings” policy that they use to preserve the feel of the space. However, the ways in which “politics” are defined often align with whiteness. To this end, discussions of race and racialized experiences are often deemed “political” and then ushered under the content-warning tag to preserve the feel of the space. This has the effect of politicizing the experiences of non-white users, rendering their struggles invisible, and preserving the white entitlement to comfort in all spaces. In short, by rendering all experience of race intrinsically political, the Fediverse enables these servers to marginalized even the experience of marginalization.

Where disability is concerned, the decentralized nature of the Fediverse makes it far more difficult for hashtags and movements to gain traction. This lack of virality is touted as yet another benefit of the Fediverse, another element to its promise of happiness. Because there is no virality, the argument goes, people have to engage with and circulate “good content.” As the norms and standards of the Fediverse tend to align with whiteness and whiteness with ableism, “good content” is, ultimately, content not subject to content warnings that does not disturb the comfort taken in a space where the able body can trail behind. Thus, you can only generate “good content” so long as that content aligns with the Fediverse’s promise of happiness, one which does not include productive uses of virality.

This lack of virality hinders one of the crucial means by which the disability community becomes a community. Many of the ways in which the disability community gathers support from allies and far-flung members of the community is through virality. The ability for #NEISvoid to trend or the ability for a specific instance of ableism to trend as a call to arms for the community is largely due to the nature of virality which does not rely upon the tolerance of users who do not share the experience that is circulated. In essence, virality can be leveraged to overcome ableism and bring to visibility a community that often struggles to get its needs met. Yet this use of virality fails to align with the promise of happiness supplied by the Fediverse.

Ultimately, in order for the Fediverse to live up to the ideals of its founding—ideals that many users will invoke in the same breath in which they decline to provide the space for new users to find themselves and make present their identities through the very affordances of the Fediverse–it will need to engage in a wholesale cultural shift away from its current insular cultural practices and towards a more open space where individuals are free to play with the affordances such that new communities and new ways of making identity present in digital space can emerge. Currently, the conservativism and insularity of the Fediverse make it a poor fit for marginalized groups that seek to flee the collapse of Twitter.

What are the future directions of your work in philosophy of disability, philosophy of technology, and your other areas of specialization?

I would like to take the time to develop a Deweyan theory of digital community formation that would bring together insights from science and technology studies, social media studies, and digital media studies to make clear the ways in which the communities that form by means of digital environments and their affordances are in fact communities in the Deweyan sense. As such, these communities are a wealth of information and should be democratically transacted with in ways that enrich the totality of human experience.

I also want to further develop the work that I began in “Disability as a Cultural Problem” to articulate a broader Deweyan engagement with disability. While there are some crucial insights in the recent Pragmatist Approaches to Disability edited volume, I felt as though there could be more work done with Dewey’s comments on fitness, on organism and environment transaction, and on the aesthetics of experience, all of which work which would expand the existing corpus of philosophy of disability. Specifically, I think that Dewey’s work provides an excellent means to engage with the experience of ADHD as a different way of reconstructing experience.

Beyond my work on Dewey, I hope to expand my work on citational politics to address the ways in which even progressive areas of our discipline harden into oppressive structures that narrow the avenues of approach that we might take towards specific issues. For example, the citational politics of philosophy of disability stem not just from the whiteness of the area, but the tendency towards melioration of disability where no such melioration is possible. That is, what I would like to see is a shaking up of the citational politics within philosophy of disability such that we can acknowledge the negative effects that accompany our disabilities, our frustration, our pain, and our dissatisfaction with our bodyminds, without being ashamed of feeling these things.

I would also like to investigate the broader ways in which affect and aesthetics matter in disabled experience, that is, how the “appearance” of disability is circulated within the philosophy of disability and within the disability community such that some disabilities must appear in specific ways to be “visible” beyond their marks on the body. “Looking disabled,” on this view, is not simply something that is imposed from without by an ableist culture but rather is circulated within the community by our own cultural and social norms.

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

I would recommend Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body, Sara Ahmed’s Complaint, Willful Subjects, and Living a Feminist Life, as well as the fantastic work in the Journal of Philosophy and Disability. Further, I strongly recommend your readers pick up the forthcoming Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability, not just because I contributed a chapter to it but because the book will be a valuable introduction or addition to the philosophy of disability.

I would also like to take this time to remind your readers that we are still in the grip of a mass disabling event, one which disproportionately effects people of color and disabled people. As such, I would hope that your readers and listeners would continue to engage in mitigation measures, such as masking at all times and getting vaccinated, where possible. Given the eugenicist nature of existing COVID-19 responses, it is incumbent on us to take the steps that our leaders will not take to ensure that we end the pandemic once and for all.

Finally, I would recommend that we all, at some point, take a vacation.

Johnathan, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about Mastodon, the mutual constitution of disability and bisexuality, and everything else that you have discussed in this interview. I, for one, have found your remarks very insightful and engaging.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Johnathan Flowers’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.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, February 15th for the ninety-fifth 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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