Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the ninth installment of Dialogues on Disability, a series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here 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 personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Damion Kareem Scott. Damion is an adjunct professor in Philosophy and Africana Studies at the City University of New York, a M.A. student in African American Studies at Columbia University, and a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Stony Brook University. Damion is passionate about music and dance, though he doesn’t dance as much as he once did. Damion enjoys traveling and looks for ways to do so on the cheap. He also enjoys interacting with non-human animals, listening to music, and watching films and loves table tennis.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Damion! You have lived in various parts of the world and you speak multiple languages. So, why don’t we start this interview with your personal history? Please tell us about your background and what it is that brought you to Africana Studies and philosophy.
Sure. I was born in the Bronx, New York City, in the early 1970s. Both of my birth parents are Jamaican nationals who became naturalized U.S. citizens. My early years were characterized by a certain amount of trauma, deprivation, and violence, about which I won’t go into detail. In the mid-1970s, after my parents split up, my father moved back to Jamaica and took me with him. At that time, political violence and gang-related homicides were endemic in Jamaica. My family returned to the U.S. in the early 1980s, first migrating to Chapel Hill and, subsequently, to Dallas. I spent my Christmases and summers in Brooklyn and Miami. My exposure to a lot of difference conditioned some of my values.
These various geographies are crucially different in a number of ways. For instance, the American South was, and continues to be, a region rife with explicit and overt Anti-Black/White Supremacist racism. Dallas lacks population density. Due to these sharp differences of culture and demographics, my family and I experienced direct and targeted racial animosity and violence. This direct and overt racism is, of course, fully compatible with the “institutional” and “structural” manifestations of anti-Black, anti-minority racism in the northern U.S. that have become all-too-familiar aspects of much of contemporary North American culture; that is, one form of this racism reinforces the other form.
I became conscious of America’s racist/racialist obsessions as I started to come into my own as a person. In order to develop my self-identity, I had to deal with instances of violence. I was forced to learn how to defend myself and my sisters, both mentally and physically. That I had to think through, and against, issues of violence at a young age led me to develop a sharper, quicker, and more creative perspective, namely, a philosophical perspective. I would come home and ask how I should respond when some white kid called me a “nigger,” or a “Yankee” or a “foreigner with a funny accent.” I learned how to deal with things in a non-violent way. I fought physically only after all rational (albeit youthful) attempts at persuasion had failed.
Sadly, tragically, there were guns. As a teenager, I witnessed America’s culture of guns all around me, including the phenomenon of young people who came to glorify firearms through family traditions handed down to them, traditions that were anathema to my own familial and cultural values. Despite my loving, caring parents and siblings who had joined the ranks of the “diverse” suburban American middle-class, both nonracial and racially-charged instances of crime and violence happened all around us, as well as to us. I have repeatedly been the target of racial profiling by the police. On a number of occasions, police officers have trained their guns on me. Because of these combined circumstances, I started to think broadly about philosophical notions of personal identity and political solidarity, as well as about issues of race, ethnicity, and inclusive humanity. Little did I know that this thinking would develop into committed projects in academic philosophy and Africana Studies.
As I got older, I began to stand out in school academically. I went to a public high school, although it was a new “magnet” school staffed with caring and well-intentioned teachers. Eventually, I became a National Achievement/National Merit Scholar, winning several academic accolades. I matriculated at New York University in the early/mid-1990s, using a college scholarship (and some student loans!) as the ticket back to my my wider family here in New York. I intended to study physics, musical journalism, or dramatic writing; but I took a philosophy class in my first year and got hooked. I had read a few classics of African-American political and liberational thought in high school—The Prince, Soul on Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X—but not really any other kind of philosophy. I enrolled in an Introduction to Ancient Civilization general studies class that had a large component on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius gave me a lot to think about, a lot to which I could relate. Although I declared as a dramatic writing and philosophy major, I dropped the dramatic writing double major as a junior and became a physics minor and philosophy major. I had become enthralled with analytical metaphysics at the juncture of philosophy of science.
As an undergraduate, I began my continuing engagement with a certain type of “Continental” philosophy, that is, logical reconstructive type of approaches to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and existential phenomenology, as well as Deleuze, Derrida, and post-structuralist interventions in language and ontology. Professor John Richardson at NYU helped me to formulate my thoughts coherently through engagement with historical figures in post-Kantian Continental Philosophy—especially Nietzsche and Heidegger—in relation to my prior, nascent phenomenology and conceptualizations of difference and deviance. Richardson really encouraged and motivated me to pursue an advanced degree in philosophy. Professors Ed Stein, Paul Boghossian, Marya Schechtman, Sigrun Svavarsdottir, Mary Mothersill, and Galen Strawson also made big impressions on me as an undergraduate. Thomas Nagel was a big influence on the shape of my developing philosophical ideas. He was an incredible teacher. From Nagel’s work and classes, I acquired a broad sense of analytical philosophy. His work seemed more far-ranging than most of the analytic philosophy that I had encountered, instilling in me a sense of how very unorthodox and minority positions could be clearly, yet rigorously, articulated, especially in the philosophy of mind.
My fortunate selection for, and attendance at, two Rutgers Summer Institutes for Underrepresented Groups in Philosophy during the 1990s—first as a student mentee and subsequently as a graduate student mentor—also greatly influenced my philosophical development. The institutes enabled me to learn about the specifically academic aspects of the burgeoning field of Africana Philosophy that I now love. I had returned to academia after roughly a decade away from it because of a shift in my lifestyle due to both the onset of degenerative joint disease and economic hardship. Since my return, I have had the pleasure to work with such fine scholars as Professors Ann O’Byrne, Megan Craig, Ed Casey, Peter Carevetta, Marcellus Blount, Stephen Gregory, Harvey Cormier, and Robert-Gooding Williams.
Your research in African-American aesthetics and artistic history explores the value of art that arises from social and political oppression. How would you describe this research and what motivates you to do it?
I work on ontology and aesthetics, especially ontology and aesthetics that has social and political implications. Naturalistic arguments and positions that have a universal or global scope are persuasive to me. I think that a good way to achieve continuing liberation and increasing equality is indeed to foster understanding of our shared human identity—heavily qualified, of course. Many other philosophers work on these issues and problems, reconciling the realities of black suffering and oppression with a global notion of our shared commonality. Nevertheless, my emphasis on historical objectivity and universality is clearly a minority position amongst minority positions at present.
There’s a rich body of work on Black and Africana aesthetics that intersects issues of social ontology and the politics of race, culture, and ethnicity. Much of this work identifies and clarifies the relationship between personal, subjective, spontaneous creation and the embedded, reflexive aspects of the social, cultural, and historical context of artistic creativity. There is a lot less work on specific relationships of these themes to the future. I think that I have made some progress with respect to Black-Futurist and Africana-Futurist themes in my writing on the conceptual relations and phenomenology of particular oppressed experiences. My work on these themes—including my forthcoming publications and invited presentations—seems to be catching on. In the past couple of years, I’ve given several conference and colloquium presentations on the subject of what is Black about Black Futurism and Afro Futurism. In these presentations, I developed arguments that can be found, historically, in Martin Delaney, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E. DuBois, and Alain Locke and, more recently, in Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, SunRa, Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambatta, Jeff Mills, Lewis Gordon, Anthony Appiah, Frank Kirkland, Charles Mills, Lorenzo Simpson, Howard McGary, and Chris LeBron. In sum, I draw on arguments from critical race theory, social ontology, and traditional aesthetics—Goodman, Budd, Danto, Derrida, Deleuze, Alain Locke—to develop my work on Black-Futurist aesthetics.
The common identification between Black people and Africana people is, and will always be, problematic. In part, this identification is an overgeneralization based upon cultural chauvinism and an assumed American or Western Eurocentric viewpoint. Many indigenous people referred to as “Black” within their own cultures are not in fact recent African descendants. On the other hand, from a naturalistic point of view, as best we know, everyone is of African descent, unless the concept of descent is understood in arbitrary or supernatural terms. These critical ideas say a lot about current notions of cultural interpretation and questions of artistic integrity and cultural authenticity. Simply put, we use these types of arguments to talk about possible “dark” perspectives in the future that have little or nothing to do with current ideas about race. Some of the historical references to Blackness refer to oppressed minority people, themes, or positions more broadly, especially in relation to conceptions of darkness and inaccessibility, vagueness, and disability. Africana identity in our particular social-historical context is indeed Black. As a linguistic culture, we can truthfully refer, and importantly trust, the senses of others’ ascriptions of Blackness in relations to Africana identity. However, historically, Blackness has been a far more encompassing idea than is captured in the contingent, historically, and materially conditioned contexts that situate people of recent African descent as the epistemically and socially “darker” perspectives. The voices and the will of the oppressed, the queer, the pained, feminine, the poor, and the disabled attest to this.
In the future, these conceptual identifications can, could, and probably will differ and diverge to such a degree that, in the future, the disabled perspective may be “darker” than the Black perspective in various relational contexts. In the future, there will be a virtual infinity of social categories with which people—that is, intentional beings or subjects—can identify. At present, I can identify with the realities of my social and political categorizations as a person who lacks power, a person who is oppressed: black person, adjunct professor, disabled person, and so on. I can also identify my categorization as someone who shares certain kinds of power and privilege: for instance, I’m male, an American citizen, cis-gendered, and relatively independent. The tensions that many of us feel in terms of the objective relativity and the virtual identification of personal and social identity open up possibilities to think about how to contribute to the moral and political projects of people’s futurist possible transformations, especially (as I have argued) in terms of non-anthropomorphic agency.
Let’s put the future aside, at least for the moment, in order to talk about your past research. When you lived in the U.K., you served as a community mental-health liaison for an influential multi-year NHS project that examined racial categorization in psychopathology. What were the aims and outcomes of this project, both institutionally and for you personally?
Conducted through Kings College Hospital’s Institute of Psychiatry, the Aesop Project (as it was called) examined the role of societal and cultural factors in diagnoses of mental “disorders” and involved six psychiatric hospitals and institutes, as well as thousands of research subjects. In the U.K., first generation Afro-Caribbean British people were—and, I assume, still are—diagnosed with schizophrenia and related mental dysfunction—“pathologies”—on the order of two to eighteen times the rate of members of other ethnic and racial groups. Twin sibling studies failed to describe any appreciable genetic-dispositional probabilities related to this phenomenon, as did most of the exclusionary, reductive neurological models. The project aimed to provide both an explanatory and clinically valuable framing of these diagnostic anomalies. The leading hypothesis was that the high rates of diagnoses for Afro-Caribbean people were due to implicit biases on the part of psychiatric clinicians, that is, the claim was that white British psychiatrists were over-diagnosing and “medicalizing” deviance in this population as an objective, context-free dysfunction. With that suspicion in mind, teams of social psychiatrists, psychologists, epidemiologists, and clinical ethicists initiated the project. In part, they hoped to increase the cultural sensitivity of clinical training and practice through a transformed understanding of the role of race. Not surprisingly, the research identified factors such as underemployment and early parent-child separation as large probability factors in the first-generation Afro-Caribbean-British demographic.
I worked on the front lines as a low-level researcher and community liaison. I went into the community to recruit so-called healthy people used in control groups for the purposes of comparison with the in-patient group. We compared MRIs and answers to extensive, far-ranging questionnaires. The questionnaires were designed to test relative stress levels, self-esteem, self-respect, perception of self-integrity, family histories, feelings of relative social and political empowerment, class identification, vocational aptitude, and attitudes toward social cohesion and cultural assimilation.
Some surprising empirical findings—such as maternal viral infection during the second or third trimester of pregnancies—transcended racial categorization in schizophrenic diagnosis; however, the sociological factors involved such as underemployment, lack of political representation, and perceived social deviation were indeed race specific. One of the philosophically interesting aspects of these studies concerned self-identification and the role of cognition in synthesizing and processing affective extremities. For example, the pathogenesis of schizophrenia is in part related to functional roles of conception of self. If you have a raced conception of self, it will have a meaningful impact on how you process experiences and how you act in social contexts. A more tumultuous or fractious sense of self will lead to what is considered more deviant behavior. So-called ghetto identity or oppressed identity elicits a greater standardization of deviance.
Because my working visa in the U.K. had expired, I left the project before its completion, although I stayed in touch with the researchers for a while and subsequently kept up-to-speed on the resulting research publications. These are some of the practical results from the study: increased hiring of clinicians of Afro-Caribbean descent in the NHS; changes in elements of medical school curriculum in social psychiatric specialization; and policy initiatives to raise the level of employment in Afro-British communities and to reduce stigmatizations of mental health issues. Many important aspects of this type of research could be adapted to North American contexts and indeed used for a more globalist understanding of power dynamics in reflexive social psychological science. A representative publication from the extensive literature derived from the findings is “Social Environment, Ethnicity, and Schizophrenia: A Case-control Study” by Rosemarie Mallett, Julian Leff, Dinesh Bhugra, Dong Pang and Jing Hua Zhao in The Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2002. Professors Mallet and Leff were my immediate supervisors and the principal investigators of the Aesop Project. The final report of the Aesop Project is entitled Incidence of Schizophrenia and other Psychoses in Ethnic Minority Groups: Results from the MRCAESOP Study.
I have personally witnessed, and I am very familiar with, extreme examples of behavioral and volitional deviance. I find it challenging to attempt to reconcile my cultural experiences with statistical evidence in terms of relative categories of abnormality via both social scientific and philosophical investigation. I have learned to understand myself, and to understand one of “my” cultures, both objectively and empirically, in addition to thinking about it critically and philosophically. Melanie Klein, Michel Foucault, Franz Fanon, Thomas Szaz, Bill Fulford, Derek Bolton, and Kathryn Tabb are philosophers of psychiatry who come to mind in this more robustly philosophical sense.
Damion, although you do not explicitly situate your philosophical research within philosophy of disability and disability studies, you maintain that your identification as disabled informs your research and your overall outlook. Please explain how disability conditions your research and overall perspective.
I’m interested in theorizing, critiquing, and understanding naturalism, objectivity, difference, universality, and deviance. I’m fascinated by the developing fields of philosophy of disability and disability studies. You have made such important advancements in these areas of research, Dr. Tremain. I am learning from philosophers who work in these areas, as well as thinking about ways to tie what I have learned in the areas to issues of Black Futurism, Afro Futurism, and the ontology and semantics of art and of oppression, in general. Professor Eva Kittay, who is at one of my current institutions, has been a shining example of the power and elegance of philosophical understanding of disability. Although I have not had formal instruction with Kittay, I have had the benefit of brief informal conversations with her about her work.
As I mentioned, I have degenerative joint disease, which has progressed over the past five years and causes pain, stiffness, and swelling in several of my joints. When the flare-ups are acute, I have difficulty walking and typing, so I use voice-recognition software. As a part-time lecturer and part-time graduate student, I haven’t had the financial resources or the institutional support to get the assistance that I have needed. But I have labored on, and luckily enough, many colleagues and instructors have been supportive and kind, encouraging me to continue, which has enabled me to be in a position in which I can do research and teach and write productively. Given my daily pain and disability, I couldn’t have accomplished what I have done thus far without a supportive community.
My experience of disability has motivated me to think about practical ways in which to assist other people. When I feel the pain of flare-ups, the exhaustion due to lack of sleep, and the inability to focus due to a combination of both, I try to think about the experiences of people with far more disruptive or severe existences than I have. My transition to disabled identity has opened up a range of possibilities of thought that, although at times trying, has filled my life with resilience in ways similar to the resolve that my personal and familial overcoming of racist ignorance, violent experiences, and adulthood poverty has given to me. The experience of disability has given me not only insight into the first-person experience of what it is to have a disability, but also insight into the third-personal conditions of empathy and altruism, as well as various social and institutional engagements with latent and explicit power relations specific to deviant and non-normative phenomenological, physiological, and psychological existence.
How do race and disability condition your experience and status as an adjunct faculty member?
When I was hired in the Department of Philosophy at CUNY, I considered myself lucky. In 2001, when I finished the Master’s degree in Philosophy in London, I explored the possibility of teaching high school in the U.K. I thought that I would need to have a Ph.D. in hand to teach at a community college or a vocational school or the equivalent. I could not stay in the U.K. So I moved to Wuxi, China and started teaching English at a private boarding school. After China, I moved to Japan to continue teaching English. Subsequently, I was hired as an educational counselor. Then, I got hired as an adjunct professor in a vocational school, a Japanese Senmon-Gakuin. That was my first job with the title of “professor.” Building on that experience, I eventually got hired as an adjunct professor at a community college back home in New York.
The initial onset of my degenerative joint disease was extremely painful and physically limiting. After a few months, it was quite difficult to walk, never mind to exercise and dance. My life changed dramatically and very rapidly. On top of that, just before the adjunct gig, the economy collapsed and I got laid off from my job as an English teacher. Things got to a point at which I sought Federal disability status. My application for Federal disability status was rejected. Through a separate program, however, I got status as a disabled person from the City of New York. That disability status enabled me to enroll in a city physical therapy program. Although the physical therapy was very helpful, my unemployed status was not. So, I decided to go back to graduate school. I certainly wanted to get a Ph.D., but I also went to grad school because I needed the student loan money. Luckily, a CUNY philosophy professor who knew me from conferences and colloquiums over the years recommended me for a job as an adjunct professor in the department that he had previously chaired. I submitted my C.V. and then waited for an employment decision through the summer of 2012. I got hired a few days before CUNY classes started, was given a full schedule of three classes with sample syllabi, and the department chair wished me “Good Luck.” In short, I was thrown into the deep end. I had about 90 students. At the same time, I started a new graduate program.
My students are unaware of my disability, unless I have strong flare-ups, or unavoidably limp, or massage my joints absentmindedly. I was, and I am, expected to perform to the same standards as nondisabled people. I had, and continue to have, difficult and inconvenient schedules, with classes spread throughout the week. My disability isn’t taken into consideration. I have come to realize that, in general, people like me who have chronic invisible disabilities are expected to deal with their circumstances in silence. Since I came to this realization, I have done what I can to highlight the importance of the project of raising awareness of people with invisible disabilities.
At times, adjunct teaching is extremely difficult. The amount of work that we do, for the degrading salary that we receive, borders on the hellish. If I teach three classes per semester, I live around the poverty line. If I teach only one or two classes, it’s nearly impossible to pay rent and eat, much less focus on my own research. I need to invest so much energy and time outside the classroom that it is too difficult to look for another position. The mobility issues compound these problems. But, I love teaching and I’m very passionate about philosophy. I look forward to taking up my N.Y. State Turner Fellowship in the fall of 2016 at Stony Brook University. I will no longer need to depend on adjunct teaching, with its lack of job security. I urge other disabled philosophers who are only part-time to attempt to forge supportive communities amongst ourselves and with understanding nondisabled fellow academics. We will flourish if we can support ourselves, if we share, help each other, and find a supportive community.
What resources would you recommend to people who wish to learn more about African-American aesthetics?
There is a growing number of sources, including: The Companion to African American Philosophy edited by Tommy L. Lott and John Pittman; The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy; and Hip Hop Philosophy by Tommie Shelby, William Irwin, and Derrick Darby. I recommend that people who want to explore the foundations of African-American aesthetics look for the work of DuBois, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. On the subject of Afro-Futurist and Black-Futurist aesthetics and art, I would recommend James Hale, Reynaldo Anderson, Rasheeda Phillips, Ytasah Womack, Lorenzo Simpson, Harvey Cormier. For work in contemporary Africana aesthetics, I would recommend Kristie Dotson, Leonard Harris, Clyde Taylor, Richard Schusterman, Tommie Shelby, Gerald Early, Denise James, Robert-Gooding Williams, and Lewis Gordon.
Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed. I would also like to convey my gratitude to Dr. Christine Young for her assistance with this interview.
Damion, thank you very much for your incredibly interesting, pointed, and thought-provoking remarks. Your interview is another valuable contribution to the Dialogues on Disability series.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Damion Kareem Scott’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here in the New Year on Wednesday, January 20th at 8 a.m. ET for the tenth 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, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.