Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the twenty-fourth 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 Anne D’Arcy, who has had both a teaching career and a social services career, each for twenty years. Anne retired from her position in the Philosophy Department at California State University-Chico three years ago, having taught at numerous universities and colleges. She writes poetry, short stories, and (her current favorite mode) flash fiction, has contributed to several editions of McGraw-Hill’s The Power of Ideas, and is co-authoring the tenth edition of it. All of Anne’s academic and creative writing has philosophical underpinnings.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Anne! You have studied and taught in several disciplines. Please describe your background and what led you to do a Ph.D. in philosophy.
I was born in Rhode Island in 1938—which makes me soon to be seventy-nine years old—to very conservative parents who raised us with verbal and physical abuse and strict religious views. I created a life of my own that revolved around reading books that the children’s librarian disapproved of, speaking and writing contests, and foil-fencing competitions. I loved my teachers in place of my parents and vowed that, when I grew up, I would teach young people to resist authority. I would never make anyone feel small, neglected, or disapproved of for qualities not of their choosing. Even then, as a child, I wanted to make a difference in the world, to promote equality, good judgment, and compassion with an absence of pity or discrimination. These values shaped my psyche, and I sought out adults who embraced them, making them my role models.
I discovered early in life that I was attracted to both women and men. Lesbian was a dirty word in those days, and “coming out” was not a phenomenon until a later era. As a young adult, I was a hippie. I led what we called “consciousness groups” in my home during the 1960s, wore sandals, burned my bra, attended peace rallies, joined the Sexual Freedom League, and marched to resist war.
Although I never married—another form of resistance to authority—I arranged to bear three children, two from a stable relationship, the last with a sperm donor after I advertised for one in an underground rag. We now take for granted all these actions; but, they were avant-garde in that era. I got three hundred and eighty-four responses to my ad for a donor, painstakingly investigated the ones that looked promising, and ended up choosing a delightful man who shared my values. We drew up a legal contract and—voilὰ!—my daughter was soon on the way. I led a double life, however: I never told anyone in my family, for example, that I was a lesbian or that I hadn’t ever married. I didn’t come out to anyone at work.
Now comes a roundabout answer to your question about how I arrived at philosophy: I had majored in English, completed a Master’s in English and American Literature, and taught language and literature in community colleges. I anticipated teaching in this field for the rest of my career.
I had always been interested in all things religious; so, when a friend invited me in the 1980s to explore her yoga ashram’s teachings and programs, I was delighted to participate. Much more than a visit transpired: I ended up spending ten years associated with the ashram, primarily in silence, learning how to let go of thought through meditation. It took me that long just to begin to approach that state because of what Buddhists call “monkey mind.” I couldn’t shut it off.
It’s now been fifteen years since I left the ashram, and although I can no longer sit in yoga position, I still meditate several hours a day. That has become a lifelong gift. Toward the end of my ashram association, I considered becoming a monk in the ashram tradition, but it ultimately dawned on me that I could make more of a difference in the world through social action of some kind. I had achieved inner peace for myself; now I needed to be able to teach others how to approach that place within.
To get connected in that way, I needed a different community and a wider background in theology. So, I entered one of the seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. There I found myself more drawn to philosophy than theology and enrolled in philosophy courses. I had spent ten years learning to let go of thought; now, I had to reverse my perspective. GTU is a paradise for students, consisting of eight colleges of different faith traditions. Students choose one of these colleges to “major” in, but are encouraged, without restriction, to enroll in courses in the other colleges to broaden and deepen their studies. The student population was also vastly different than what I had experienced. There were no sleepy-eyed students arriving late to class after partying all night. No one rolled their eyes no matter what you said in class. Everything was food for thought.
I had only one complaint: the classes were primarily composed of seminarians of various faiths. One professor opened his class by asking the Holy Spirit to guide us, followed by “Good Morning, Gentlemen.” Looking around, I saw that I was one of three women in the large class; the other two were nuns. These same words were spoken every day. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I approached the professor after class and politely pointed out that there were three women in the class who didn’t consider themselves “gentlemen.” He was ever so gracious and apologetic. I felt good that I had brought the problem to his attention. Next morning, he opened as usual by entreating the Holy Spirit to attend us and ended with “Good Morning, Gentlemen.” Clearly my message had not sunk in.
When a life situation required a move out of the area, I transferred to the state university. The university didn’t have a M.A. program in philosophy, but it did have a policy for creating an interdepartmental program. So, I created a program in two departments: religious studies and philosophy. The resulting M.A. thesis was entitled A Theopoetics of French Feminist Subjectivity: Crossing the Border of Feminist Philosophy. The manuscript weighed ten pounds and consisted of a dialogue between traditional academic essays and creative approaches in poetry, dream fragments, memories, journal entries, one-liners, etc. on four hundred opposing pages that reflected each other.
The structure of the manuscript created a huge stir because my graduate advisor was in psychology and utterly unfamiliar with the theories that I was exploring. She wanted to see tables and statistics! Worst of all, she hadn’t yet read my work; she had only glanced at the writings on opposing pages—a modeling of Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater”—and pounced. My thesis committee was aghast, and the deans of the two colleges ended up entering the fray. At that point, I nearly quit the degree program. My wise committee chair said, “You’ve written about crossing borders, but you didn’t expect a border guard?”
So, I resolved to stay and resist. Fortunately, I didn’t have to resist. The two deans demanded to see this thesis that, on the one hand, my committee said was brilliant and, on the other, my graduate advisor said was too inferior to share with the university at large. Both deans took a copy of it home for the weekend and returned Monday morning to say that they liked my work and approved it without changing a word. One said that he hadn’t read a more interesting, well-written thesis since he had written his own.
When I completed this degree, graduating with distinction, I moved on to a Ph.D. program, where my interest in French feminist philosophy, in particular, could be deepened. At the new institution, I had a wonderful committee who supported the direction of my work. In so many ways, it was a delightful four years. There were many other adult learners, so none of the problems that I had encountered at the state university arose.
I’ve been teaching a variety of philosophy courses for a number of years at the state university. I was the only feminist philosopher in the department for most of this time; so, I ended up working with the women’s studies program as well, teaching courses offered in both departments such as Feminist Perspectives, Multi-culturalism in Gender Studies, Bioethics, and so on. I’ve contributed to several editions of McGraw-Hill’s The Power of Ideas, an introduction to philosophy textbook, the tenth edition of which I am co-authoring. My contributions to this edition are primarily in chapters on feminist philosophy, French feminist philosophy, and Continentalism.
Anglo-American feminist philosophers are variously fascinated, annoyed, or perplexed by the French feminism of the 1970s and 80s. You wrote a dissertation on the work from that period of Hélène Cixous. What do you take to be the most important contributions to feminist thought of the French feminism from that period? And what is the lingering influence of the French feminism from that time on current thinking in feminist philosophy?
I had the life-changing pleasure to hear Hélène Cixous lecture at the University of California on June 25, 1995. I remember the date because it was my birthday. The lecture was disastrous. When she began to speak of maternal metaphors, the audience reacted. Motherhood was a hot feminist issue at that time. But she deftly and gracefully explicated her theories even as they got up and left in protest. I was sitting alone in the front row because of diminished hearing. Apparently, I looked more intense than I realized because at the end of her lecture, she winked at me. I’ve treasured that wink as a mark of our connection, carried it around with me all these years. She has been my major influence ever since, in both my feminist thought and writing. Much of the creative writing I do, including a novel that I submitted in addition to my dissertation, is written in her form of écriture féminine. I have always written this way in my personal notebooks. I hadn’t known there was someone else who stretched language to its limits in the ways that I did.
Years later, when I finished my novel in écriture féminine, I felt compelled to write to her. She has mentioned how many letters she gets from women and how much she regrets that she can’t respond to all of them; so, I kept it short. The result was an invitation to attend her annual class. It was a great honor to be so invited; but, ultimately, I chose not to attend. Although I had taught high-school French, my French was too rusty. I’d heard that she is merciless in this class: absolute fluency seemed a requirement.
I agree that Anglo-American feminist philosophers have had a variety of responses to French feminist thought. In France, the education of a philosopher often includes more than philosophy: most French feminist philosophers have two areas of expertise. Psychoanalytic theory isn’t something Anglo-Americans necessarily study, although that is finally changing; but, it’s essential to understand the French feminist academics. French feminist theory builds on Lacanian theory and is expressed in new linguistic structures that open up language, erase borders, and substitute extended metaphors of the present moment that preclude final definitions and endings.
If this sounds suspiciously Derridian, that’s because it is: Derrida was Cixous’s lifelong mentor. They even wrote a book together: he writing from a male border, she from a female border. She has absorbed Derrida’s theory of the endless signifier, writing words with her thousand tongues: she has shown us that we can write the underside of texts, that there are text windows that lead to exciting ways to play with language. But not everyone is up for coming to embrace her work. As philosophers, we examine ideas, theories. It’s not easy to locate these in Cixous’s work, certainly not in the traditional sense. There is nothing traditional about Cixous.
Critics tend to anthologize Cixous’s essays that are more coherently theoretical, most often "Castration or Decapitation?" and "The Laugh of the Medusa". This infuriates Cixous, for whom theory doesn’t precede or dictate the movement of the text. She insists that a theory has never inspired her philosophico-poetical texts; it is the reverse. Theory is what the academic world demands, and she grudgingly provides it, but it’s more of a halt in her poetic rhythm to do so. She maintains that theory is a last resort for her.
In the beginning of their careers, only Luce Irigaray identified as feminist. Julia Kristeva came to feminism slowly, with Cixous also declaring early on that she wasn’t a feminist. But this is because feminist issues in France were different from those in Anglo-America and because the grassroots activists were suspicious of ivory-tower theorists. Like Anglo-Americans of that era, grassroots activists felt that only in social action would feminism evolve and thrive. There was also the unusual practice of writing without authorship identification. A woman was everywoman. Her name and credentials were thought not to be important or necessary.
Psychoanalytic theory has caught on to some degree, but American philosophers don’t spend the years in intense study of Lacan, Freud, etc. In the 60s, Freud, in particular, was rejected by American philosophers because of his misogynistic views. Cixous’s response to this reaction on their part was that they were throwing out the baby with the bath water. Interestingly, the field of expertise of the current chair of my philosophy department is psychoanalytic theory. I wouldn’t have predicted, when I first began my French feminism studies, that one day a specialist in psychoanalytic theory would be the chair of my philosophy department.
What institutional, material, and other factors have shaped your teaching? How have these factors affected your thinking and writing as a feminist philosopher?
There is a long list of challenges that have affected my teaching and my life in general: breast cancer—I am now a twelve year survivor; leg-knee surgery; depression; COPD; a massive deep vein thrombosis that put me in a recliner with my leg elevated for a year and threatens to recur; osteoarthritis; hip degeneration; diabetes; bouts of pneumonia that put me in intensive care for weeks at a time; carpal tunnel syndrome; leg edema that makes me prone to falls; evolving heart disease; glaucoma; and more on the horizon.
Getting to class on time with my chronic breathlessness was a challenge. I would have to stop periodically to catch my breath. I required classrooms that were more accessible. I had to use a walker cart to carry my books and papers to class. Accommodation was often a problem. It was important to make a point of checking for an accessible route before a class met for the first time.
Once, I volunteered to take over a course for a colleague who was on extended sick leave. It met across campus in a building that I’d never been in. The classroom turned out to be on the third floor. Yes, there was an elevator, but no one told me that it was a locked elevator for faculty only and that you had to apply for a key. I didn’t discover this fact until the first day of class. I remember looking in dismay at that huge flight of stairs winding around to the third floor. I started the arduous task of one step at a time, holding on to the rail with one hand and pulling the book cart up behind me with the other. “At this rate, it will take me fifteen minutes to get there,” I fumed to myself, “and they’ll leave after ten minutes if I’m not there.” Fortunately, there was an instant flurry of strong young men who whisked the cart away from me and took my arm to help me up the steps. Ah, chivalry!
The day came when I was told that it was time to get my affairs in order. At the time, I was lying on a hospital gurney with an I.V. tube and whatever that thing is called that they put in your throat to deliver oxygen when you become unconscious for the procedure. I took them at their word, did all the things that one does with property and wills and such. But I also became a hermit, retired from teaching my courses in bioethics, critical thinking, and feminist inquiry, and sank into a deep depression that I still struggle with most days.
A bright spot emerged: I was referred to UC Davis, a teaching hospital, to be enrolled in one of their experimental programs for my lung diagnosis. After painstaking perusal of my entire medical history, the good doctors there proclaimed that I didn’t even have the condition that the program was for. I had been misdiagnosed by my local pulmonary specialist! I had spent a year mourning impending death for nothing! No, not for nothing. I had provided warning for my family. I had said my goodbyes. And I had come to terms with death, a very valuable thing indeed. When the time comes, I will just close my eyes and let it take me wherever.
I’ve survived many illnesses by becoming vegan. I’ve lost seventy pounds and can get through most days with just a cane and sheer determination, despite the chronic pain that painkillers can’t control. I made a conscious decision to celebrate the time that I have left: I bought a writer’s retreat, a cabin in the woods, where I live with six rescued dogs, who, like me, are at risk. Works for me.
If I were to have a chance to start over, I would have started sooner to study French feminist philosophy, Cixous, in particular. I would have kept my French fluent and gobbled up her untranslated novels. I would have sought out a mentor and a philosophical community that I could grow with in the way that I grew with my ashram community. I would have started a book club. I would have found more ways to become a mentor myself when I was ready. One such cherished opportunity that I had was the one-unit mini-courses I gave online to my fellow doctoral students. These courses were more like a chat room than lectures. There was a reading list and pithy questions to ponder. The dialogue was exciting. I am still in touch with some of the students who wanted to go deeper when the course was over.
In my interview with Christine Overall in March of last year, she discussed her work on ageism. You began your Ph.D. when you were sixty years old, Anne. Did you experience ageism from your professors or classmates?
Ageism has chased me around, stopping at every corner and looking back to see if I’ve given up yet. Never. It was there when I made a conscious decision not to marry as a young woman. It was there when I waited till my late thirties to have my daughter. It was there when I couldn’t begin a Master’s program until my three children had finished their education because I was a single mother. It was blatantly there when I wanted to do my graduate work at a prestigious university and was told by a professor that they would never admit me—despite my 3.0 G.P.A.—because I wouldn’t have enough time after graduation to publish and make them look good. “But that would be unlawful discrimination, wouldn’t it?” I sputtered. “Oh, never fear, they’ll find a different reason,” I was told. I began to wonder how many other doors would close.
Ageism was there in class when it was expected that I would take charge of groups and assist everyone with their projects as if I were everyone’s mother. There was more pressure on me to lead, to come up with ideas for the group, because of my age. And the expectation was that I would let the younger students have their day in the spotlight—take credit for my ideas—because, surely, I’d already had mine. Not so! Sometimes the expectations were clearly ageist: if I’m older, I should be wiser, right? Not necessarily. Being a woman of my age is neither an ability nor a disability.
On the first day of teaching a critical thinking course, for example, I noticed one young man, fifth row center, with a silly grin on his face during my entire introductory lecture. When I finished, I addressed him, asking if he had any questions because he looked as if he did. He readily responded that I was the same age as his grandmother, and all she did was sit in her rocking chair all day. The class tittered. I asked if he thought that’s what I should be doing. He shrugged, still with the silly grin. He didn’t have to answer: I got it.
If I’m older than my classmates, I shouldn’t compete with them in any way—not for grades, not for first choice of topics in presentations, and I shouldn’t introduce anything that they may have not yet encountered because it may make them look bad in the eyes of the professor, or worse, I would make them think that I regarded myself as superior. I felt more and more limited as to what I could explore because of the effect that it would have on the younger students. Often, I ended up spending more time in the professor’s office hours than in class so that I could pose my questions at the level that I wanted to without students muttering.
Old age is not decline, but it is regarded as such by most people that I’ve encountered. Perhaps the most grievous, albeit unwitting, attack on my age was made by a professor who said, “I sure hope that I have as many marbles as you do when I’m your age.” He actually thought that he had paid me a compliment. And the class laughed. Yup, ageism is alive and well in academia.
Let’s continue with this line of thought. In what other ways did your graduate school experience differ from the experiences of your classmates?
I often felt as if I was on my own in the learning arena. I was pursuing this degree for the sheer joy of it, not for a teaching position when I was finished. I already had the position that I wanted. So, understandably, I did a lot of research beyond the class assignments. If we were assigned a certain book by a given author, I read three books by that author and explored secondary sources. I went beyond the confines of the course and the professor’s expectations, not to look good, but because that’s what I was there for—a push in the right directions, an expert to challenge my thinking. The other students were visibly upset by my academic thirst, my unwillingness to stop anywhere if a question remained. Exploring was most often a drag for them, a burden; for me, it was delightful, inspiring, fulfilling. I often asked myself if I was in the wrong school. I wanted more freedom of thought, fewer limitations, less judgment. When it was time to apply for a doctoral program, I did my homework and located one that I could tell would not put the limitations on me that I’d already suffered, would be happy to have me sail Cixous’s ship with her.
As I’ve said, my graduate advisor for the Master’s degree in philosophy was in a different field. My work was alien to her and confused her. She was so convinced that it was therefore inferior that she proposed that I not have my thesis put in the library for all to see. It would be hidden in a special collection reserved for students whose writing skills were below the graduate level. She brought in a stack of theses to my committee (I was not invited to be present) and demanded that my thesis look like all the others. The committee had to explain to her what breaking new ground meant. In retaliation, I suspect, she demanded that I provide a writing sample, a 5000-word essay. I pointed out that I was teaching writing at the university level. Did that not suffice? No.
I believed that it was an ageist distinction, although I couldn’t prove it: she didn’t require this writing sample of the younger students and somehow seemed to think it impertinent of me to be in the program, writing on an esoteric subject that no one could understand. Writing on opposing pages, indeed! When I next appeared for my scheduled office visit, she sat in one of two chairs in the office; the other was piled with books and papers. I had nowhere to sit despite my obvious inability to stand for an extended period without pain. I leaned on my cane for the whole hour and stumbled out of her office, grateful that it would be another month before I would have to endure her again. If it was clear to me that that was a discriminatory act, why didn’t I call her on it? I’ve asked myself that many times since then. It was primarily because I didn’t want any more conflict. I wasn’t there to make waves and enemies. These incidents and attitudes were sucking the joy out of my project.
These descriptions of the ageism and ableism that you’ve experienced likely resonate with many older and disabled students, Anne. I hope your remarks in this interview motivate philosophers to reflect on how their practices and policies contribute to the reproduction of these axes of power. Do you want to recommend some articles or books on topics that we’ve discussed in this interview?
I am always delighted to encounter an opportunity to introduce Cixous. She doesn’t have to be inaccessible. It’s not that her work is impenetrable. It’s that we’re trained in a different mode of thinking through ideas than she uses with such grace and power. I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in French feminist philosophy start from the beginning: Beauvoir, then move to the work of Cixous, Kristeva, Irigarary. One thing that keeps coming up among my colleagues is that they think that because they’ve read Cixous’s early work, they know Cixous.
Anglo-Americans have accused her in the past of being apolitical, of not connecting to real life. But her later periods do exactly this and add another dimension to her preoccupation with the self and other in the early work. These three French philosophers are still alive, still publishing, and have moved into exciting new areas. Cixous’s The Book of Promethea is perhaps the best place to begin. On the surface, it’s a passionate love affair between two women. But, the undertext gives us much more. By the time that you finish a close reading of this novel, allowing it to sink into your pores, you may find yourself wondering where one of the women ends and the other begins—or if, indeed, there are two women or one. And what are the implications of that? Are you sure? I hope not.
It’s important to understand that Cixous doesn’t regard what she does with language or with the concepts that language produces as inventing a new language. On the contrary, she regards it as “a virgin way of listening and making the always new-old language speak.” She writes: “I never dream of mastering or of ordering or inventing concepts. Moreover, I am incapable of this. I am overtaken. All I want is to illustrate, to depict fragments, events of human life and death, each unique and at the same time exchange-able. Not the law, the exception.” These remarks are as close as we’ll ever get to Cixous explicating her own work; but there it is. You need only this nutshell.
Écriture féminine is not for everyone. Often Cixous’s writing is stream of consciousness. She alludes to anything and everything that flashes into her consciousness, communicating tantalizing fragments, half-thoughts, leaping from one textual image to another in the lightning way that cognition moves. Not everyone’s mind lends itself to letting go and floating away with Cixous’s metaphors, let alone understanding all the nuances. There is a blurring, a fragmentation of genres because no one genre expresses what she is communicating. This poses a unique challenge for our analytical minds: is she speaking nonsense? Pulling the wool over our eyes?
Not at all. She encodes in the structures of linguistic modes. She’s not a casual read….but, she is so worth it. Struggling against her modes of expression doesn’t help; and approaching her writing from an analytical perspective won’t work either. The result of letting go is exhilarating. It’s like learning to dance with the most graceful of partners, one who is willing to lead, but takes you into places where you must dance your own way out. It’s a highly experiential discourse. To enter her work, the reader must set aside preconceptions of what a philosopher is and allow the text to do its work. Reading Cixous is to let go of what we think that we know and swim with her, or drown…that’s also an option. You can get there either way.
Cixous’s écriture féminine—particularly when studied with Kristeva and Irigaray— develops academic feminist thought in France. Viewed as a chorale of sorts, these three form the basis of a revolutionary development in the relations among psycholinguistics, poststructuralist theory, and feminist inquiry. These models of thinking, writing, and relating free us from phallocentric constraints. In Cixous, we have a model that emphasizes love, sensuality, and the unconscious in new forms of writing. In Kristeva, we have a model that explores the maternal semiotic and its language, female subjectivity, and a new ethics of love. In Irigaray, we have a model for a new language and a way of experiencing the divine. The variations of their theories of sexual difference and gendered subjectivity sustain a future for other global feminists willing to take the time and trouble to contextualize their work and to build from these roots.
Anne, thanks so much for your insightful remarks throughout this interview and for giving us what amounts to a primer on Hélène Cixous and French feminist philosophy and theory more generally. I’m sure that many readers and listeners have been fascinated with your elucidations and descriptions of this work.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Anne D’Arcy’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, April 19th at 8 a.m. EST, for the second-anniversary 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 email@example.com. 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.