Joel Michael Reynolds is the Rice Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Bioethics and the Humanities at The Hastings Center. His teaching, research, and public engagement center on issues concerning ethics, society, and embodiment. In addition to completing the monograph-form of his dissertation, The Life Worth Living: Ethics and the Experiences of Disability, he is developing two major projects on (a) the bioethical implications of genomic knowledge and (b) the meaning of ability in the later Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve written?
My Hypatia article, “Infinite Responsibility in the Bedpan: Response Ethics, Care Ethics, and the Phenomenology of Dependency Work,” takes the cake. While the second half and overarching framework of the paper make a number of technical moves with regard to Levinas and care ethics, the first half is a phenomenology of dependency work with my post-stroke grandfather. It was very hard to write, for doing so marked the first time I had processed not only caring for him, but also my relationship with him overall. Given how close my work is to my life, family, and communities, crying is not uncommon, but those were hard tears. On a different metric of “favorite,” I am happy about my peer commentary piece for the American Journal of Bioethics, which deals with ableism and decision-making regarding disorders of consciousness. Peer commentaries are a strange, yet wonderful genre, and I did not anticipate just how difficult it would be to condense an argument, much less a set of complex arguments spanning multiple disciplines, into under 1,500 words. Due in part to that restriction, I think it is one of the clearer and more acerbic pieces I’ve written to date.
What are you working on right now?
From 23andMe to Fitbits to smartphones, we live our lives in the light of a novel and ever-increasing set of information about our bodies, minds, habits, consumption, genes, etc. This information includes our present, past, and future—including our procreative future. Such information is ultimately filtered through various epistemic filters, from risk-assessment to copious implicit and explicit biases to often unreflective ideals of and assumptions about well-being. The implications for genomic information (look at the recent H.R. 1313 bill) in particular are momentous. I am very interested in what it means to have genomic responsibility and whether or not, and if so, in what way, the age of genomics marks a transformation in the human condition. I am currently thinking of this as a question of our infotality: the way in which we today experience both natality and mortality through probabilistic information about ourselves, others, and the world. Insofar as this information is judged via ableist, sexist, racist, cisgenderist, classist, and colonialist lenses, among others, we should be worried about the revolution we are already undergoing and which is rapidly changing the conditions of our world and the possibilities for engagement with it.
Name a trait, skill or characteristic that you have that others may not know about.
I’m an ambivert. People who don’t know me well think I’m an extrovert because that’s how I’ve learned to/had to adapt. Let’s just say: I require a lot of solitary and inner-circle (re)charging. Due to a host of events over the course of my life (the details of which I’ll spare you), I am slow to trust others in contexts of gravity. My relationship to social interaction has been fundamentally shaped by a very complex network of caring relations that allowed my family to survive in a world that widely devalues care, dependency labor, interdependent trust, and disabled lives. Numerous times, my brother (among other family members) nearly died through commissions or omissions on the part of people who supposedly pledged to care for him. The value of his life for those who I thought cared about him—and me and my family—was thrown into question many times. This is part of what has drawn me to care ethics as a resource to think through the binding nature of some, often intimate relations and the curious lack with respect to a host of others.
What is your favorite book of all time?
Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. I first read it as part of an Inside/Outside class during my undergraduate education at the University of Oregon. Inside/Outside is a national program where colleges and universities partner with incarceration facilities to hold courses for people from both spaces. In my case, ten students from the Robert D. Clark Honors College met with ten incarcerated people from the Oregon State Penitentiary for 3 hour chunks once per week. The course changed my life in many ways, none of which I can do justice to here. With respect to Dostoevsky’s initial impact on me, the “Grand Inquisitor” and “Rebellion” sections brilliantly articulated numerous concerns I had about the meaning of suffering, the liabilities of theodicy, and the ambiguity of claims about moral bearing with respect to human nature. Dostoevsky writes with an unabashed honesty and perspicuity about ethical ambiguity and torment that has and will always capture me. His thought (as well as Beauvoir’s) backgrounded the final section of my Tedx talk about my brother, disability, and ethics.
When did you last sing to yourself, or to someone else?
Each morning I sing to and cuddle with Schnerp, my ineffable miniature dachshund. It’s the one routine I never break.
What time of day are you most productive and creative?
I have always been a creature of the night. I’m 99% sure I have DSPS (delayed sleep phase syndrome), so I get quite annoyed when people act as if my inability to function (or wake) in the morning is a question of will or simply “taking a Melatonin.” It’s not. I greatly look forward to the day this changes, if ever it does.
Who is your favorite philosopher and why?
I don’t have a favorite philosopher. Among other reasons, I draw widely across the history of philosophy as well as other fields spanning the humanities and social sciences because the thinking a given person or scholarly community counts as valuable and insightful is often subject to numerous biases, a lack of genuine pluralism whether in training, concern, or circumstance, and, more often than not, unjust and rarely defensible histories of all sorts. But I should give props where props are due: I wouldn’t be here without Kierkegaard.
Where is your favorite place you have ever traveled and why?
I’ve been very lucky and privileged with regards to travelling. Despite Italy’s wine, Germany’s raves, and Brazil’s beauty, it is New Orleans that most grips my heart. I have never yet been to a place that is more non-judgmental and free-spirited (though the history of why that’s the case and who feels it is deeply fraught). I want my ashes spread on Frenchman Street somewhere between Spotted Cat and B.M.C. Seriously.
What’s your favorite quote?
Zeus has led us on to know,
the Helmsman lays it down as law
that we must suffer, suffer into truth [πάθει μάθος].
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.
Aeschylus (Agamemnon, 177-82, trans. Fagles)
I may or may not have this tattooed on my arm in the original Attic Greek. When I soon complete the sleeve on my left arm, I will be adding Adorno’s line, “the need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth” (Das Bedürfnis, Leiden beredt warden zu lassen, ist Bedingung aller Wahrheit)—my love of which I had the pleasure of chatting about with Myisha Cherry on The UnMute Podcast.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
I would not have made it through grad school (or the last six years of life) without a phenomenal psychologist, a strong social support network of family, friends, and mentors—and, for the last two and a half years—the one and only Schnerp. Having said this, I still under-prioritized my mental health. As if getting a PhD in philosophy weren’t trying enough on its own, the time span for such a process is long enough for many, if not most, to experience serious tragedies, traumas, and tribulations. My brother died while I was still in course work, and that is only one of the many world-shattering things that occurred. In my experience, it is far rarer for people to maintain their mental health while getting a PhD than to experience bouts and periods of depression, arresting self-doubt, anxiety and panic attacks, etc. This perhaps holds even more so for those whose work is tied to current ethical and socio-political issues and for whom an “off switch” is nearly impossible. We have a very long way to go as a profession to destigmatize mental health issues (not to mention larger ableist paradigms) and provide better support of all sorts to those around us.
Find out more about Joel here.
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