Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I would like to welcome you to the eighth-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 eighth 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 eighth-anniversary installment of the series highlights insights and lessons that these disabled philosophers offered the philosophical community, reflecting upon the contributions to philosophy that their interviews have made.
I am delighted that Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril, whom I interviewed in May 2021, and Johnathan Flowers, whom I interviewed in August 2020 and in January of this year, have 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.
[Description of photo below: A close-up selfie of Élaina, a disabled woman of colour whose tousled short dark hair is adorned with a bright bandana. She is wearing vibrant eye make-up, striking lip colour, and a dark turtle-neck sweater. Her facial expression is both stoic and inquisitive. A book shelf lined with books and journals fills the faded background of the shot.]
[Description of photo 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]
The land on which I sit to conduct the Dialogues on Disability interviews is the ancestral territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg nations. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations around the Great Lakes. Because I am an uninvited settler, this land acknowledgement is meant to convey my respect for and solidarity with Indigenous peoples of so-called Canada and other settler states who, for thousands of years, have held sacred the land, water, air, and sky, as well as their inhabitants, and who, for centuries, have struggled to protect them from the ravages and degradation of colonization and expropriation.
SHELLEY: Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Élaina and Johnathan! I am grateful to you for taking the time away from your teaching and research to co-produce this anniversary installment of the Dialogues on Disability series with me.
The eighth year of the series began with the amazing interview that I conducted with Andrea Pitts. Andrea’s interview traversed a range of compelling topics, including migration, addiction, class, incarceration, and identifying as Latinx and disabled. In one place in the interview, Andrea talks about how community organizing enabled them to acquire a political analysis of disability in ways that discussions of disability in bioethics courses and their early life experiences of disability had not. They put it this way:
Disability, as a political identity, just didn’t show up to me at first, largely because I could work and attend school. Growing up, I had the view that the term disability was only really applicable to people such as my grandfather who could no longer work and thus who came to rely on social security benefits as a way to contribute to a household income. … I knew that my mother and our family negotiated sliding scale health clinics, HIV/AIDS resources, housing and food instability, and public welfare services for access to mental health care and primary care. Yet, again, these circumstances didn’t show up to me as political issues early on. Rather, I came to disability politics through learning about prisons and prison health care when, in graduate school, I worked with a group of incarcerated and nonincarcerated philosophers in an organization called REACH Coalition in Nashville, TN. … With REACH, I found myself drawn to anti-carceral politics. … When I started to work with REACH and to learn about intergenerational violence, racial profiling, forms of entrapment that impact communities of color, and so on, I began to see how so many dimensions of–not just my life–but the lives of so many people in Black and brown communities have been devastated by the carceral system. This group really politicized health care issues for me in a way that was distinct from the bioethics content that I had read.
SHELLEY: Given your own political analysis of disability and identification as disabled, Élaina, how do you understand Andrea’s movement toward this social location?
ÉLAINA: As Andrea points out, disability is primarily framed as a biomedical/bioethical issue, or at least as a problem to be solved with the allocation of healthcare resources. Understanding disability as political requires that we view disability through different lenses, in relation with ways of being that are not defined by medicalized processes and systems. In Andrea’s experience, their work with REACH brought them in contact with people whose health issues were deeply entangled with the violence of carceral systems: “disability” gained a new context, which demanded new understandings of it, ones that couldn’t escape politicization.
Andrea’s highlighted remarks invite us to reflect on the definitions of disability that we all inherit. Our respective starting points for these reflections will differ given our disparate positionalities; but the common message is likely to be that disability is an individual failing: failure to provide for one’s family, failure to be a reliable worker, failure to “contribute” to society. It is by reaching out of our immediate circles of knowledge; by listening to the ideas, needs, and frustrations of disabled people; that we can start to uncover a more adequate idea of what disability is and means. Bioethics claims one, narrow, set of relations; disability deserves so much more.
Andrea’s experience doing engaged philosophy, public philosophy, is what prompted them to view disability as political. Stephanie Jenkins, in her Dialogues on Disability interview of last June, mentioned that it was through public philosophy and philosophy of music that she found her place as a disabled philosopher in an otherwise hostile discipline. When she talked about the conditions of employment for disabled philosophers in the United States, Stephanie had this to say:
For philosophers, the activities and functions implied by the phrase “research activities that lead to the publication of scholarly” typically include: reading, notetaking, critical thinking, and writing. Readers/listeners may agree that they are essential functions of philosophers. But how quickly must these tasks be performed? Is pace an essential function? I am physically capable of doing these activities; but some days, my disabilities interfere with the speed at which I complete high-level cognitive tasks. … Before my endocrine condition was diagnosed and treated, I experienced what I call “brain quicksand” because it was worse than my previous “brain fog”: every word and thought that I found was pulled away by a counteracting force. I wrote and published during this period, but it was excruciatingly difficult and took considerably more time than it does when my cognition falls more in the neurotypical spectrum. I was performing “essential functions.” Just slowly.
ÉLAINA: Johnathan, how do you understand the tension that Stephanie illustrates between the demand to perform “essential” philosophical activities and the cost of that performance for disabled people?
JOHNATHAN: Philosophers should pay close attention to Stephanie’s reference to “pace”: “pace” structures almost every aspect of professional philosophical life. For example, we have tenure timelines; we have “time to completion” for graduate students; we have review and publication timelines; and we have application timelines and deadlines, all of which timelines demand that we work at a certain pace, a pace that is often unsustainable for disabled people. So, I think that Stephanie is correct to think that “pace” is implicitly regarded as an essential function of philosophers and that its use as a criterion of employment in philosophy maintains the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession.
There is a tension between the pace of philosophy, the push for inclusion of disabled philosophers in philosophy, and the reality of being disabled. If we invite more disabled philosophers into philosophy, while doing nothing about the unsustainable pace of philosophy, then we’re in effect doing nothing about the conditions that exclude disabled philosophers from philosophy in the first place. Stephanie’s remarks about how her disabilities limit the pace at which she can complete the cognitive tasks of philosophy and about how she requires more time to complete work when her cognition is outside the neurotypical norm demonstrate this tension.
Finally, Stephanie points to something that many disabled philosophers experience on the job market and in academia more broadly: a lack of support from universities and departments. Maeve McKeown describes this lack of support in the following portion of her interview for Dialogues on Disability last July when she states:
I had four seizures in a nine-month period; the highest frequency that I’ve ever had. The university did not help. Instead, I got called into my line manager’s office for an “informal” meeting. I arrived to the meeting alone, but someone was there to take minutes. I realized that there was nothing informal about the meeting. I was asked if I was “fit to do my job” and told to go on long-term sick leave. I said that this instruction didn’t make sense because I didn’t know if I would have more seizures and that I wouldn’t be able to pay rent. In response, I was told that my situation wasn’t the university’s problem. I was told that the line manager had written to my GP to get information about my case. However, the GP phoned me up to say that she had never received such a letter and that it seemed as if the university was trying to get rid of me.
JOHNATHAN: Shelley, how do you understand Maeve’s experience at Oxford with respect to broader conditions for disabled people in philosophy and academia broadly?
SHELLEY: Johnathan, your question puts into relief a central effect of the structural ableism that disabled philosophers confront in philosophy and that disabled academics in general confront within the neoliberal university, namely, the institutional construction of us as disposable. Indeed, disabled philosophers are—through a variety of institutionalized policies, practices, and other mechanisms—constructed as dispensable and bothersome, inadequate and unskilled, perceived as not meeting the artifactually circumscribed requirements and productive norms of what counts as “professional,” “cooperative,” “prepared,” and “well equipped.” These requirements and norms are of course vital to an institutional feedback loop through which disabled philosophers (and other disabled academics) are deemed to be out of place within philosophy (and academia more generally) and hence unsuitable for employment. Both the popularity of the recent phenomenon of “quiet quitting” and the eagerness with which many nondisabled philosophers and other academics have resigned remote and hybrid meetings and conferences to the past put into relief the arbitrary character of workplace arrangements, schedules, and routines of the university under neoliberal capitalism.
In Eric Schliesser’s interview for Dialogues on Disability in August last year, he drew attention to how market forces increasingly constrain who can enter the academic profession and hence increasingly shape the knowledge that is produced within academia. He said:
It’s pretty clear that only a narrow group of bodies are really made to feel very welcome in the academy. A lot of that has to do with gendered norms that really connect up to (what I am inclined to call) “aspirational class.” Kate Manne has recently written important substacks worth reading on this theme. Because of feminism and gender/disability activists, there has been some good discussion about this exclusion, and considerable push back against all kinds of norms and practices–for example, invited talks after 5pm that extend the working day, etc.–that simultaneously exclude.
At times, I feel that although debates in some areas really rage, we lose sight of a bigger picture: the education systems in OECD countries really make it difficult for non-standard paths through them and then more difficult to obtain academic employment. So, there is massive selection against what we might call physical, emotional, and neuro diversity in academic life. Even in the most financially open systems of higher education, a good chunk of the population is excluded from higher education altogether. This shapes social stratification in all kinds of ways and enables the academy to become an ideology generator in various ways.
SHELLEY: Élaina, as a disabled philosopher who seeks to be permanently employed in the university, what are your reactions to Eric Schliesser’s cited comments?
ÉLAINA: I think Eric accurately picks up on the lack of welcome for disabled bodyminds. Universities like to bill themselves as inclusive, but that inclusivity is also a problem. There is a certain amount of incommensurability between disabled life and institutional scholarly life that is addressed only by trying to “fix” the disabled employee, by making them more palatable to existing templates of the ideal worker. There is talk about “passing privilege” for individuals; yet, we should also be talking about what happens when disability cultures are erased and suppressed by so-called inclusion policies. Universities cannot claim to encourage disabled students to pursue more degrees and disabled professionals to apply for jobs if disabled ways in which to be students and employees are systematically undervalued or ignored.
“Not feeling welcome” is a powerful affect. It means there is little space for rest, for grace, in our work day; and it can be grueling to stay in that kind of environment. So many leave, but many, as Eric states, do not even get the opportunity to brave being an academic disabled philosopher. Does the absence of disabled philosophers in the academy affect the ways that the academy generates ideology? Absolutely. As such, the ability for disabled people to access higher education is a public issue that has societal ramifications. However, disabled philosophers deserve more than reforms that tolerate their needs. We have cultures, epistemologies, methodologies, and disabled relationships with time and space that demand to be valued.
One important facet of being a disabled philosopher is that many of us have (often lengthy and complex) experiences as patients who must engage with health-care providers and institutions. In her interview for Dialogues on Disability last September, Abigail Gosselin reflects on what it means to teach about psychiatric ethics as someone who has been institutionalized and has received psychiatric diagnoses, putting it this way:
In my role as a professor, I experienced a peculiar form of epistemic injustice, where I was granted a professional credibility that I did not feel that I deserved and denied a first-person credibility that I identified with more. My personal experience was one of great vulnerability and suffering, where I identified more with the oppressed and vulnerable people that I taught about in my ethics and social philosophy classes than with my students and colleagues. … Yet I was also one of these people who was being studied! And there were few opportunities to acknowledge that I was positioned this way. I had to act like an impartial observer studying the vulnerability and oppression of people situated as such, without acknowledging that this vulnerability and oppression was my experience too. I felt alienated from my experience and like an imposter as a professor because I was unable to bridge this gap between professional credibility and first-person credibility.
ÉLAINA: Johnathan, what do you think are some of the challenges of navigating professional and personal credibility as a disabled philosopher?
JOHNATHAN: Élaina, I think this is a powerful question to ask, particularly insofar as philosophy tends to assume that a certain kind of mind or body constitutes a mind and body that is capable of doing philosophy or at least doing philosophy well. Further, disabled philosophers, as Abigail notes, are forced to act as “impartial observers” where our own experience is concerned: to do otherwise would be to risk losing the credibility that impartiality supposedly grants us as philosophers studying a subject and to risk expulsion from the discipline altogether as our work is treated as less objective, less valuable than the work of others. Beyond this, I think the alienation that Abigail describes is also alienation from the discipline insofar as the discipline generally does not treat disabled philosophers as subjects of, or experts on, our own experiences, but rather treats us as objects of inquiry.
One thing that Abigail mentions in her response—which, I think, we should take seriously, especially—is feeling like an imposter. Many of the remarks made in the interviews of the Dialogues with Disability series–some of them cited in this very installment– point to the ways that our disabilities demand that we navigate and engage with philosophy differently than nondisabled philosophers. This difference, in my view, can lead us to feel like imposters in a discipline that demands so much of us, yet refuses to grant to us the kind of credibility about our own experiences that is necessary for philosophical reflection. Further, insofar as some of us have “made it” within a discipline that reinforces our marginalization through the kinds of “alienation” described by Abigail, there is an experience of feeling like an imposter because we are disconnected from our experiences, even when we are discussing them philosophically.
Shelley, I think this sense of alienation and expertise connects clearly with something that Gen Eickers describes in the interview that you did with him last October. Consider the following remarks that Gen made:
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?
JOHNATHAN: Shelley, given that legislation increasingly introduced in the United States to restrict gender affirming health care can restrict access to this health care for disabled people—in particular, autistic people—do you see parallels or possibilities for alliance, within philosophy, with trans philosophers, specifically with respect to these attacks on identity and credibility?
SHELLEY: Johnathan, your question is excellent because it serves as a reminder that identity and identification are multi-faceted and multivalent; thus, the refusal to confer credibility upon a given disabled philosopher can be complicated and even exacerbated if they identify with various subordinated social groups: their insights, invariably, constitute what Foucault referred to as “subjugated knowledges.” Gen has written an outstanding and pathbreaking chapter for the forthcoming The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability that addresses the sort of question that you have asked—including with respect to health-care contexts—especially with respect to emotions, that is, Gen’s chapter in the collection addresses who gets to define the emotional life of disabled and trans people, why accepted philosophical accounts of emotions fail to capture this emotional life, and how philosophical work on emotions must be reconfigured to encompass disabled and trans people’s identities. Gen’s insights in the chapter will serve to expand work done in philosophy of disability and trans philosophy, as well as philosophy of emotions and cognitive science more generally, the latter of which have, to date, reinforced cisgender and ableist assumptions about emotions and identity.
Your question, Johnathan, and Élaina’s earlier remarks with respect to Abigail’s interview, are reminders that everything is both political and political all the way down: health care, disabled and trans identities, credibility, knowledge production, and especially philosophical discourse.
In the interview that I did with Robert Chapman last November, they articulated the motivation to counter heretofore philosophical literature on autism that represents itself as objective and value neutral. As Robert put it:
I applied to do a Ph.D on the ethics of autism, starting in 2013, because I was so angry at the existing literature on the subject. At the time, most of the literature was from bioethicists about how autistic individuals lacked personhood or were inherently unable to thrive. I decided to challenge this work by looking at how autism and conceptions of the good life and personhood had been constructed. I argued that each of these constructs had been determined by neurotypical biases and assumptions, leading to a kind of conceptual lacuna whereby it became difficult for most people to even conceive of what I called “thriving autistic personhood.” I found the neurodiversity perspective helpful for analyzing this lacuna, since it did not arrive with presuppositions about human nature or thriving. …Soon after beginning my doctorate, I began to think neurodiversity theory was interesting for an additional reason…a lot of critical psychiatry today is about emphasizing how people with mental health diagnoses are not “really” disabled–not like “really” disabled people–because mental health is a political issue rather than a medical issue. For me, however, all issues concerning health and disability are political issues; so, that is a false binary. And I felt that approaches that seek to separate the “normal” mentally unwell people from the “really” disabled are engaged in a kind of respectability politics.
SHELLEY: Johnathan, as a disabled philosopher who identifies as neurodiverse, what are your impressions of Robert’s remarks according to which issues with respect to mental health and health in general are political issues?
JOHNATHAN: I think that Robert is correct with regards to the politicization of mental health and disability, especially where we can think of mental health and disability as already politicized. In my experience as a philosopher with ADHD, the availability of medicinal aids for my ADHD depends entirely upon the prevailing political conversation about drugs and drug-seeking behavior, as it effects how the legislation restricting access to ADHD medications is shaped. Still further, as a Black bisexual man with ADHD, politics shapes even how I am perceived as someone with ADHD: I have had to jump through more hoops in seeking treatment than my white peers, due to the political organization of race as it relates to drug use.
I think Robert’s point is something that we should bear in mind as disabled philosophers: while disability is simultaneously a category of identity and a way of experiencing the world, it is also a political and politicized subjectivity. Robert says, furthermore, that neurodiversity is useful to this end “since it did not arrive with presuppositions about human nature or thriving.” On this point, I would disagree with Robert: I believe that the presuppositions about human nature and thriving that accompany neurodiversity are hidden, that they presuppose a white subject in much the same way that Charles Mills’s Racial Contract does. To this end, I think we, as disabled philosophers, must be critical even about supposedly neutral constructions that we deploy.
Élaina, I think that some of these concerns about the critical task of disabled philosophers and philosophy of disability are highlighted in Sophia Jeppsen’s interview, wherein she states:
So many people assume that “researcher/scholar” and “psychosis patient” are mutually exclusive. They are shocked and surprised when someone turns out to be both…People assume that the psychosis is nothing but a manifestation of some brain dysfunction or other, essentially meaningless–the best and only thing to do is to stuff the psychotic person full of antipsychotics and hope that they go back to normal as soon as possible. If this doesn’t work, too bad, nothing to do. This understanding of Madness is a horribly harmful misconception. It can be extremely important when one feels oneself falling through the cracks in reality and entering another world and another state of mind to have people close to you do the best that they can to understand what you are going through and empathize. As a philosopher with lived experience, I can provide ethical arguments for our duty to try to understand and analyses and explanations of my own experiences that can help other people understand–as far as possible–what it is like.
JOHNATHAN: Élaina, how do you see disabled philosophers blurring the line between researcher and scholar? Do you think our unique lived experience has the kind of ethical force that Sophia presents in the above?
ÉLAINA: I think the power of disabled philosophers lies in inhabiting that blurry line. Philosophy is so much about order, about categorizations, dialectics, and universals. But disabled philosophers are here to remind everyone that philosophy deals in the most intimate, radical, and therefore messy aspects of what it means to be human; it cannot and should not be aseptic. As Sophia shows, disabled philosophers insist on pushing the boundaries of what constitutes philosophical analyses when we choose to critique and reject the criteria that deem our lives unworthy of philosophical consideration. In a world where being in pain, experiencing psychosis, or having a cognitive disability is more than enough to have our agency revoked, to resist disqualification or nullification as a philosopher by working with and through these experiences opens up whole new areas of study about which and into whic philosophy should be excited to delve.
I don’t think of ethics much in terms of duty; nevertheless, I agree with Sophia that philosophers with lived experience do have an important role to play in how we, as a discipline and a society, shape ethical discourse, including by rethinking our methodologies as ethic, as praxis. In their work on decolonization, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang talk about an “ethic of incommensurability,” and I think this notion is what you, Johnathan, reference so well in the interview that you did with Shelley this past January. You said:
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.
ÉLAINA: Shelley, what would a field of philosophy that embraces disabled philosophers look like to you? Do you agree with Johnathan that we have to let go of the idea of “wholeness”?
SHELLEY: Élaina, what great questions! In a number of places (for e.g., here), I have pointed out that the conception of disability that predominates in philosophy construes disability as a disadvantageous personal property, characteristic, or attribute, that is, conceives of disabled people as defective, suboptimal, and unreliable and thus not viable colleagues. Hence, Johnathan and I on the same page in this regard. In various contexts, that is, I have argued that disability should be understood (and represented) as an apparatus of power in which everyone is implicated and entangled rather than understood (and represented) as a personal characteristic or property that certain people embody or possess. I think that insofar as philosophers of disability–such as, say, Joe Stramondo, Eva Kittay, Kevin Timpe, Adam Cureton, and Elizabeth Barnes–assume the latter sort of ontology of disability, they presuppose an outdated conception of social power and actually contribute to and reinforce the network of power relations that materializes, naturalizes, and even essentializes disability as a disadvantageous personal characteristic, difference, and so on in the first place. Increasingly, disability theorists are moving away from that sort of naturalizing, individualizing, and outmoded approach to identity, disability, power, and ableism, as evidenced by, for example, Alison Kafer’s critically acclaimed Feminist, Queer, Crip and Sami Schalk’s important book, Black Disability Politics.
I think that what the discipline of philosophy must do with respect to disability and disabled philosophers is generate critical genealogical analyses that uncover the historical conditions of possibility for the current operations of the apparatus of disability in philosophy, especially in bioethics–including feminist bioethics and so-called disability bioethics–philosophy of mind, and cognitive science. We need ameliorative, genealogical analyses that throw into relief the historical contingency and cultural specificity of the construction of disability as a personal flaw or individual defect. My critique (for e.g., here) of the social construction and vilification of Phineas Gage in cognitive science and philosophy of mind is an example of the sort of ameliorative work that we can do to expose the historical contingency of how the apparatus of disability operates in philosophy to demean and gaslight disabled philosophers in particular and disabled people in general.
In February of this year, I decided to “open the archives” of the series, that is, to display its magnitude and fullness, rather than to provide an interview with a single disabled philosopher. Both the number of views that the Opening the Archives installment has received and the self-nominations for interviews that I receive after that kind of comprehensive installment goes public indicate that these contributions to the Dialogues on Disability series increase the reach of the series, encouraging new readers and listeners to engage with the interviews–enabling disabled philosophers to find us, to find each other.
I expect that the same thing will be true of the centennial installment that I plan to post in July of this year. For that installment, as you know, I have invited the dozens of disabled philosophers who have been interviewed in the series to contribute a paragraph (100 words or less) to the construction of the installment, a paragraph in which they explain the importance of the series, what it has meant to them, why it has endured, how it has shifted discussion about disability and disabled philosophers in philosophers. I hope that many of my past interviewees will take part in this momentous installment of the series.
Last month, Élaina, I interviewed Kristin Rodier in a very memorable installment of the series. Kristin does groundbreaking work on fatphobia and has contributed a co-authored (with Samantha Brennan) chapter on fat stigma in philosophy to The Bloomsbury Guide to Philosophy of Disability. The chapter considers how fat people are stigmatized and demeaned in philosophy teaching contexts, in the history of philosophy, and with respect to constructions of rationality and of the persona of the philosopher. Just the sort of ableism in philosophy to which Johnathan and I have given critical attention. At one place in her interview, Kristin said:
One of the recommendations that Sam and I make in both our earlier article and the forthcoming chapter is to reflect on whether fat philosophers are invited to give presentations, much less to give presentations on fatness. The fact that you asked me to present at the conference means a lot to me. I am hesitant to talk about this research and I recommend that fat philosophers be picky with respect to the venues in which they discuss these topics… Philosophy has a special relationship to rationality: we are experts on what reason is, how to use it, how to teach it, etc. That relationship to rationality implies a formulation of the body and its value. And, if we take de Beauvoir’s, Bordo’s, and Heyes’s critiques of the autonomous rational subject seriously, then we can question how and where our culture assigns rationality according to several bodily features, one of which is a thin body, normatively gendered, clear thinking, and speaking, but also an unmarked, able body…. There have been implicit and explicit messages to my face and behind my back that I am incapable of being a “real” philosopher. These messages are directly connected to not having a “normal professor body.” People get my name wrong—wrong fat person—have walked out of my conference presentations or have assumed either that I am not the presenter or that I’m lost. There is a veneer of niceness and deniability around fatphobia. People rarely consider that the comments that they make about me behind my back find their way to me. One of my fat superpowers is that people confess things to me because I’m “non-threatening.” People think performing fat positivity is to tell me the most fatphobic things that “other” people say, which of course, ruins my opinion of people who were important to me. It also retraumatizes me. Some comments are thinly veiled attacks on my right to professional success.
SHELLEY: Johnathan, what are your thoughts on Kristin’s remarks in this context, especially with respect to how they complement your critique of the idea of “wholeness” in philosophy?
JOHNATHAN: I think that Kristin is correct on this point: fatness is used as a marker of a lack of rationality insofar as we connect rationality with the control over one’s appetites. That is, the fat body, or the fat philosopher, is in contradiction with the expectation of the kinds of people who can and should be doing philosophy, as Kristin points out. The fat philosopher and the disabled philosopher are close cousins here as our embodiments serve as the sign of our unsuitability to be in the discipline or to produce philosophy. Any philosophy that proceeds from such a body must also be unsuitable or disconnected from “proper” philosophy.
I think that what Kristin offers is a valuable lens through which to understand the kinds of “wholeness” implied by philosophy through its privileging of nondisabled subjects, as well as a lens through which to understand the kinds of “wholeness” implied by the ways that philosophers have more generally thought about embodiment and embodied subjects. Put another way, the default embodied subject is the nonfat, nondisabled embodied subject. It is a subject who “fits” literally or figuratively into the space of philosophy. But this default subject is also the subject that disabled philosophy refuses to center or cover over.
When I said above that a disabled philosophy would refuse to aspire to the kind of wholeness of body presupposed by philosophy, I implied important parallels to how a philosophy of fatness would refuse to cover over the fat body or would refuse to make philosophy “whole” by recentering the nonfat body, all of which refusals would serve to decenter the ways in which, as Kristin notes, the fat philosopher is not the “right” philosopher and doing fat philosophy is not doing philosophy in the “right” way. I think that we need more fat philosophy, just as we need more disabled philosophy, to disabuse the discipline of the idea that there is only one kind of body and only one kind of embodied philosophy that is appropriate.
SHELLEY: Johnathan and Élaina, what a fantastic note on which to end this eighth-anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability. It has been such a pleasure to collaborate with both of you on this edition of the series. I always learn from the insightful and transgressive remarks that you make. So, I want to sincerely thank you both 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. Their generosity and courage makes the series possible.
Finally, let me end this anniversary installment with thanks to everyone who has tuned in to Dialogues on Disability during the eight 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.
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 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 17 at 8 a.m. EST for the ninety-seventh installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.
[…] If you missed last month’s eighth anniversary installment with my guests Élaina Gauthier-Mamaril and Johnathan Flowers, you will find that here. […]