Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the twenty-second installment of Dialogues on Disability, the 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 Jake Jackson. Jake is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Temple University, with a M.A. from The New School for Social Research. Jake also teaches as an adjunct at a couple Philadelphia-area schools. His primary philosophical interests are in social philosophy/ethics and phenomenology. Some of his work in these areas is included in The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Psychopathology (forthcoming). Originally from the Boston area, Jake spent his early adulthood in New York and now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and cats. He enjoys wandering in cities, science fiction, and spends a considerable amount of time on Twitter (as @CrankyEthicist), where he’s found an extremely accessible and positive academic and philosophical community that has become indispensable to his daily and professional life.
[Description of coloured photo below: Headshot of Jake, a white male in his late 20s with a goatee, wearing a black, blue, white, and red checkered shirt, black sportscoat, and brown glasses. He is looking sternly to his left. Leaves and branches of a tree and a house can be seen through diffused sunlight in the background.]
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Jake! You initially intended to study religion; however, you switched to philosophy after a class in existentialism during your first undergraduate semester “ruined [you] for life," as you put it. Please explain this motivation to do graduate work in philosophy.
Thanks for including me in this outstanding series, Shelley! When I first entered undergraduate studies, I wanted to study religion comparatively and intended to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I was never “religious,” but that didn’t quite matter in UU thinking. I spent my adolescence rather lost and aimless, and had hoped that if I studied religion something would click into place for me.
There was a lot riding on this. I am a childhood domestic violence and emotional abuse survivor from multiple abusers. As a result, I grew up bored, angry, and depressed. Much of my teenage years was lost in bitter resentments, suicidal feeling, and cynical hope. I have major depressive disorder, coupled with acute anxiety. The depression developed over time, but I cannot remember a time without anxiety. The anxiety manifests in a few ways, depending upon stress, often leading to nausea, insomnia, and occasional painful back spasms. My mental condition is what has motivated me through life, or, you might say, de-motivated me.
Leaving for college was, for me, as I suspect it is for many people, a real chance to move away from my original primary stressors and start anew (and find new primary stressors, I suppose). Although I had an initial plan, my drive and focus was to do something that helped others in some way, out of complete necessity, motivated by depressive guilt.
At my undergraduate institution, Pace University, Philosophy and Religious Studies are a combined degree, so not only was I excited to study religion from multiple angles, but to also start thinking about the world critically. I enrolled in a course on existentialism in my first semester. Discussing problems, such as whether there is meaning in life, or the fact that one is forced into life with no respite from constantly choosing their lives amongst things that cannot be chosen, opened my eyes more than any vague religious feeling ever could. This course—my first proper introduction to philosophy of any sort— “ruined” me: ruined me in the sense that I was never again able to return to who I had been before the course.
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, what really ruined me for life was reading Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. The main question of the book, “Is life even worth living?” absolutely gutted me, not because it was a new question, but because it was a question that only a few years before I had asked as if I were completely alone in doing so. Perhaps the most important thing that I got out of reading existentialist texts at eighteen was learning that I was not alone in my loneliness. After years of feeling ignored and neglected, I had found a group of authors who worried about the same things that I had worried about for so long. It really was a case of no longer feeling alone. I switched my general interests almost immediately.
Early on in my undergraduate degree, I got the inkling that not only was I going to ask these questions for myself, but I wanted to inspire them in others. I had extremely beneficial professors who took a vested interest in helping me with my studies, something I hadn’t experienced for years. They, perhaps unknowingly, developed me into the teacher that I am today. I want to name them, because I would not have pursued graduate study if it weren’t for the community fostered by: Harold Brown, the late Thomas O’Sullivan, and Ed Miller from Pace’s Philosophy and Religious Studies Department. In my teaching today, I can hear their voices in my own. In starting out graduate study, I was concerned with reading general theories of ethics based directly in dealing with others, guided by the influence that their instruction had on me.
Your research concentrates on the deconstruction of social attitudes and stigma towards mental illness, as you refer to it. In particular, you employ tools from phenomenology and existentialism, as well as the notion of epistemic injustice to address conceptual and other philosophical problems with respect to moods, emotional deviation, and responsibility. Please describe this fascinating research.
I fell into this line of research indirectly, to be frank. My M.A. thesis was more concerned with general problems involved in the development of an ethics from Husserl’s work on empathy. I also had a recurring interest in the philosophy of emotions. I found that our general social attitude toward emotions is rather cruel because it tends to gaslight individuals’ feelings in pursuit of reason. Meanwhile online, I had become friends with Zara Bain, who encouraged me to write for her PhDisabled blog. I had a few apprehensions at first, since, for a while, I felt insecure calling depression and anxiety issues as “real” disability issues. But this, of course, was my own internalized stigma.
Depression and anxiety are lived conditions that directly affect a person’s everyday life, social and otherwise. The turning point—sort of the last straw—was when Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014. The immediate public reactions to this loss, especially, betrayed horribly stigmatizing narratives on what mental illness is and what it means for society. More particularly, I found Russell Brand’s claim that Williams’s “divine madness” was a “gift” to be atrocious as it normativizes suffering as something that is worthwhile so long as it gets some sort of results. Depression and mental illness in general are not superpowers. I found this claim, and other takes on the issue of Williams’s death, repulsive. I finally got around to writing my own post for PhDisabled on depression and its general silence in academic philosophy, arguing that we need to take mental illness seriously if philosophy is to position itself as a force for good.
The post was very well received overall with occasional rediscoveries, and has since become a sort of rallying cry for my research. The amount of feedback from other students and academics who reached out to say “this is me too” made me realize that this area of research needed to be developed. I wrote the blogpost immediately before I entered my Ph.D., and have since worked on the issue of social attitudes to mental illness, particularly depression. I find that even more “positive” accounts of mental illness that try to vindicate it as “resilient,” nevertheless create unattainable expectations for depressives.
Although there is a vast and rich field of work on emotions as the foundational basis of ethics, the literature by and large does not know what to do with the issue of mood disorders. Despite the literature, there is still a resounding silence on mental illness even when it comes to citations or indexes. If anything, many accounts of philosophers of emotion glance over mental illness as a passing remark to differentiate their theory from its applications to the margins of disorder. This silence directly excludes mental illness and mood disorder from questions of agency or responsibility. Much of academic philosophy falls right back into more popular and brutally-unreflective social stigma narratives without remorse. My longer-term hope is to work out a theory of responsibility that works directly with mood disorders and, also, applies to neurotypical moods.
For example, many of our more standard attempts to understand responsibility in the existentialist tradition look at the feelings of guilt and anxiety to discuss responsibility. I find that, yes, guilt and anxiety are relatively moral moods, but are not normative. These feelings are not necessarily felt for a reason, as is the case for mood disorders, but still nevertheless are directly-motivating feelings that guide us in our everyday lives. Guilt and anxiety are in a sense callings: they demand that the individual act.
My concern is to work on ethics that centers the experience of moods and mood disorders through consideration of what exactly one is supposed to do when one feels guilt or anxiety, yet there’s no direct reason for the feeling. Where traditional accounts ignore mental disorder, I seek to get right to it and ask what it means to be responsible for one’s extreme moods. This sense of responsibility is a “response” to one’s factual situation. I want to explicate what one should do when overwhelmed by moods.
Jake, to pick up on your last remarks, you intend to write your dissertation on how the absence of clear understandings of the ontology of “mental illness” leads to social stigma and exacerbates the poor living conditions of people who are already disadvantaged. Can you tell us more about this aspect of the project and give us some sense of the institutional, social, and professional consequences that you hope it will have?
Yes, so my plan—I’m in midst of research for my prospectus—is to talk about moods, mood disorders, their social understanding—or, rather, lack thereof—and how to combat both stigma and perpetuated anguish. When it comes to talking about mental illness, just about everyone has an opinion about it, informed or misinformed by our interconnected social life-world. How we define mental illness is an inherently social issue as it conditions our social narratives about responsibility and expectations about the role that mentally-ill individuals are supposed to play in society. Due to a general lack of awareness and conflicting information, people with mental illnesses are often left by the wayside about their own condition and have a difficult time confirming that there is actually something atypical about themselves.
I describe this social experience of mental illness and the lack of public knowledge about it as leaving mentally-ill individuals “epistemically adrift”. This situation arises from a few different factors. Becoming epistemically adrift is in part a result of hermeneutical injustice as outlined by Miranda Fricker and others, involving the sorts of systemic stopgaps that prevent people from knowing and better understanding issues in ways that would enable them to flourish. Becoming epistemically adrift is about more than just missing knowledge; it also results because there are too many knowledges. Not only do mentally-ill individuals have to navigate their life-world despite hermeneutical gaps; they must also navigate through different and often contradictory disciplines and ideologies.
There is no definitive authority on mental illness, especially because expertise is continually and increasingly under credibility threat within American society. Most people have an opinion regarding mental illness, so each discipline has different approaches and conceptions of it. Each distinct disciplinary approach to mental illness proceeds to account for some truth behind the phenomena, but each in turn provides a differing sketch of what mental illness is and what is to be done about it. Where each rigorous disciplinary attempt at explicating what to do about mental illness is in good faith, each of them has its own failures regarding care.
Psychiatry’s adherence to the DSM—to the point of uncritically calling the document its bible—and the medical model have led to a problem of instrumentalizing and categorizing conditions, occasionally with the general accusation that the field is much more concerned with accurate diagnoses than care. Much of the mental healthcare system in the United States is relatively dependent upon practitioners, state laws, and access to affordable healthcare, rather than any governing force, such as the American Psychiatric Association.
Meanwhile, the anti-psychiatric movement argues strongly against the horrors of malpractice, yet nevertheless has reduced the state of mental illness to a purely social structure or malingering condition. Religious narratives of sin and guilt naturally persist in the world to this day. In addition, a full-blown “happiness industry” attempts to commodify and sell good feelings to consumers under the guise of homeopathy and other capitalist exploitations that only make mentally-ill people feel more inadequate and insecure for being “unhappy”. All these different approaches result in not just misinformation, but a lot of noise that mentally-ill people must figure out for themselves as instructions for care and responsibility.
In turn, these issues are compounded along intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and class. The very question of access to sufficient mental healthcare, let alone social awareness of mental illness as a concept, gets further befuddled when we look to these sorts of social differences. People who experience discrimination in general are blocked from access to proper care and therefore denied the proper social awareness of their own life. The mental healthcare system in the United States (and other places) is hard enough for people with relative privilege to navigate in order to receive adequate care.
Locked-out and epistemically adrift from hermeneutical and other forms of injustice, mentally-ill individuals commonly deviate from social norms and get themselves into direct trouble with the society that has failed them. The most pervasive de facto mental healthcare system within the United States is the criminal justice system and the mass industrial-prison complex where the largest in-patient facilities are within prisons. We, as a society, manufacture anguish; this comes about in many ways. There’s insufficient resources for preventing or correcting physical, emotional, and other forms of abuse. Also, the seriously mentally ill are under threat of death in any encounter with law enforcement when they deviate from the norm. Those incarcerated are additionally put in undue solitary confinement and other tortures when they strike out against a system that has failed them.
Another problem concerns those considered to be “higher functioning” mentally ill-individuals. People who are, more or less, able to function in society may, as a result, not even know that they have a disordered condition. A large part of the problem of neurotypically-based society is that it sees everything as a binary: mad or sane. Many people do constant comparison work. There’s a distance that appears in these comparisons: “I’m not as crazy or sick as this other person.” This ends up being a contributing cause for worsening mental health, as many believe that they cannot seek help for themselves as there are others who have it worse, taking themselves as martyrs because they think others deserve care more than themselves. The same happens readily within cases of trauma or abuse; because one can think of worse situations, one humbly admits to oneself that they are not in need of help or downplay their experiences by a way of self-gaslighting. Caring for oneself cannot be dependent upon the sufferings of others, but only one’s own self. The previous sentence may seem obvious or tautological, but it needs to be stressed regardless.
Ultimately, I hope that my work directly challenges these sorts of vain and stigmatizing direct comparisons and critiques the overreliance upon categories of mental differences while explicating a better form of inclusive ethics. My hope is that this remains a viable project in terms of directly holding mental health systems and attitudes accountable. I still have my hopes for academic work in the future, but also see myself doing policy or consulting work on mental-health advocacy. I do hope that this work nevertheless directly opens philosophers to address more practical problems in policy for social stigmas against, and expectations of, mentally-ill people.
In addition to the research you do, you teach. You’ve described your teaching methods to me as “performative emotional breakdown.” What does this phrase mean and how does this idea shape your pedagogy?
Ha, well… that serves me right for trying to write my initial bio as a series of silly one-liners… I find that much of teaching—at least teaching that inspires students—is performative in some sense. There’s something vitally theatrical in teaching. Maybe it’s the mood disorder, but I don’t know how to teach without a direct emotional investment in my lectures. I have more consistently chosen to accentuate my emotions while teaching, rather than try to suppress them. The first time that I taught a class, I tried to suppress my feelings as much as possible, but it totally arrested me with anxiety.
I feel my way through lectures and get rather anguished and worked up throughout. I pace around the front of the room quite a bit, in part just out of feeling restless and unable to stay still, otherwise I get petrified with anxiety and cannot speak. In more basic or non-applied classes, I typically don’t follow my pre-planned lecture notes, but rather improvise my way through the text’s major claims and their general applications in everyday society. In teaching mainly Gen-Ed and intro courses, much of my teaching is to a relatively captive audience, many of whom are already resentful of the course by its requirement alone. The best that I can do is to “trick” them into caring about the course material as much as I do.
[Description of coloured photo below: Jake leans against the brick exterior of an apartment building looking grumpy. He is wearing a blue, black, and white checkered shirt, a dark jacket, dark jeans, and glasses. His right hand is in the right pocket of his pants, his left arm is raised and bent at the elbow, and his left hand is behind his head. To the right of him, grey spray-painted graffiti on the building reads “create confusion!”]
Primarily, I find myself asking rather gadfly- or koan-type questions, trying to draw out the fact that people’s day-to-day perspectives of the world are already built on top of assumptions they’ve never considered. For example, teaching The Republic, I ask if family is even important; teaching Marx, I ask what money even does or what is inherent about gold that makes it so special, or even just the general question “what is freedom?” I prefer to play the room and see what people already know or think they know; then, I try my hardest to disorient them so that they find better and more rigorous bearings. This, overall, is what I feel should be the basis for philosophy, especially teaching philosophy, not some overtly-technical jargon, but a re-orientation for a more ethical and interconnected everyday life.
The results of my teaching style are… mixed. Every semester I get students who go out of their way to thank me, talk about how much they’ve learned, arguments they’ve had with their parents/roommates because of things I’ve mentioned, and other very appreciative comments. But I also have several problem students that I don’t know how to handle, other than to, unfortunately, internalize their hatred towards my instruction that I’ve so entangled with myself.
This past semester, I had a weird experience teaching the same Gen Ed course back-to-back. The general population of the first class was not receptive toward me, let alone patient with me. But, the second class was extremely enthusiastic: sometimes I could barely get a word in edgewise on genuinely-positive class discussion. The overall result was a sort of emotional whiplash, going from extreme lows to highs within the course of a couple hours.
Given the growing traction of hate-groups in the past few years, however, I’ve been receiving a lot of pushback. My teaching evaluations especially have taken a strange hit, including comments that didn’t answer the question prompt, but got bogged down in relatively threatening sour grapes over the fact that I “stifled true opinions”—which I think were likely hate-speech or dog-whistles. So, I’ve stopped reading my student feedback forms for larger classes until there’s been some time to cool off.
I have been toying with the idea of doing a student-evaluation swap with a peer: have a trusted peer read the full reviews without reading them myself, this person would excise the intentionally-hurtful comments, while best explaining any legitimate concerns in terms of improvement. I think it is still vital in this culture of bad-gamification and consumerization of teaching to find what is good in one’s teaching craft amongst so much negativity and growing political cruelty. I know that I am appreciated, but I still need it in writing to affirm myself amongst my own internalized negative noise in anxiety and depression. It has taken so much for me to feel worthwhile, yet it is always ever so hard to navigate.
On the positive side, I’ve had many students who have been excited about the work I’ve taught and have received rave reviews as well. Students keep in touch, reach out, let me know that I’m the reason they got into interesting fights with their family and roommates. I know that I’m doing work that is appreciated and gets people out in the world and questioning the consequences in their lives, which has already vindicated so much for me.
Have you encountered barriers in your role as a student or teacher? If so, can you describe these barriers to us and suggest how they can be dismantled?
I’ve had a few hang-ups here and there; but, thankfully, I have not faced much in the way of institutional barriers. I’m what would be considered a “high functioning” depressive. I typically get my work done on time and seem functional to most people; but, I am constantly blocked by anxiety. After a few bouts of grief and sudden loss of friends and family, I’ve at times felt just completely lost and unable to do anything beyond going through the motions of being a student.
I spent the entire time of both my B.A. and M.A. not taking care of my mental health, which had a terrible toll. I spent much of my studies feeling inadequate or at the whim of my moods and holding out from losing control of my life. Again, part of why this happened was that, in midst of everything, I either did not see myself as someone who needed care or as someone who deserved care because I could easily find others who had it worse than me. One barrier, however, overall is the silence surrounding mental health that pervades even the best-meaning institutions and faculty. Sometimes when there are no words, there is just the need to listen.
[Description of coloured photo below: Black sidewalk sandwich board with blue and white text that states “NO BAD VIBES ALLOWED.” Part of Jake’s image is reflected on the sandwich board as he takes the picture. He is wearing a blue and white checkered shirt, skinny jeans, and lace-up shoes.]
Sometimes, when fully engrossed in my emotional experience, I feel completely alienated and apart from others and feel persecuted. I get paranoid and socially anxious so often, both openly irritable in order to push certain people away and to feel additionally hated by those that I admire, even when that’s unlikely to take place or known to be false. Some days, it’s not about the barriers one faces from others, but the barriers that one makes for oneself in the face of others. I’ve taken on a bit of a rough reputation by peers as “abrasive,” but, as best as I can figure, I need to be somewhat rude to ensure that I can take care of myself. This sort of ethic is explicated clearly in Havi Carel’s work, which I cite later in this interview. The result of this strategy has been rather alienating, overall, and I haven’t quite found the community that others do in department peer groups. I have occasionally found myself destroying good friendships and relationships due only to my own belief that I do not deserve their company. This result has, perhaps, been the hardest burden to bear.
What do you want to recommend on the topics we’ve discussed in this interview or, alternatively, on anything that we didn’t discuss?
I do want to take a moment to stress the importance for graduate students to forge community. Academia and the so-called “life of the mind” are inevitably rather alienating and lonesome. Even if a good community is hard to find locally, I highly recommend forging your own community through digital or other spaces. Go to conferences, especially interdisciplinary conferences, collaborate, reach out to others. There’s a bizarre cult of “required sufferings” in academia: resist this. Personally, Twitter became indispensable for me when I could neither relate to local others, nor financially and emotionally afford to go out. In turn, I have made several extremely close friends and have been socially-enriched by the constant availability for conversation.
In terms of resources on the topics we’ve discussed, my recent thinking has been heavily shaped by these books: Havi Carel’s Illness: The Cry of the Flesh and her most recent Phenomenology of Illness; Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives; Nancy Nyquist Potter’s The Virtue of Defiance and Psychiatric Engagement; and Matthew Ratcliffe’s Experiences of Depression: a Study in Phenomenology.
Thanks again, Shelley, for including me in this very important series.
Jake, thank you very much for sharing your moving insights and experiences with us. I’m sure that your remarks have registered with many other graduate students and faculty alike.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Jake Jackson’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 again on Wednesday, February 15th at 8 a.m. ET for the twenty-third 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.