Thomas Teo is a Professor of Psychology in the Historical, Theoretical, and Critical Studies of Psychology Program at York University, Toronto, Canada. He has spent his 20+ year career challenging the status quo in academic psychology. His unique approach to research has been described as both critical and meta-psychological. He often takes the discipline of psychology itself, including its methods and assumptions, as the target of his analysis.
He is currently the co-editor of the Review of General Psychology (Sage), editor of the Palgrave Studies in the Theory and History of Psychology, and co-editor of the Palgrave Studies in Indigenous Psychology. He is the former president of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology, of the American Psychological Association’s Society of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology (Division 24), and former chair of the History and Philosophy of Psychology Section of the Canadian Psychological Association. He has a research record with more than 200 academic publications and refereed conference presentations.
In this interview, Teo expounds upon concepts covered in a recent Science News Article and explains what it means for him to be a critical psychologist. He outlines how, as he became disappointed with the general state of psychology in Western Europe and the Americas, he sought alternative approaches that could better account for how culture, society, and economics are entangled with psychology. This led him to look more closely at historical examples of fascism, as well as postcolonial authors, to better understand how the psychosocial dimensions of social power operate in the world today. As he explains, this has important implications for how we think about psychiatry, mental health, and disability.
Teo concludes the interview by foreshadowing some of his future work, which will further build on his concept of subhumanism to examine how subjectivity is shaped by the premium placed on certain lives. In contrast, others are constructed as less-than-human under neoliberal capitalism.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Tim Beck: Can you share a little bit about your personal history before academia? Is there anything you can point to in your life that might have contributed to the unique approach that you take to psychology?
Thomas Teo: I experienced some disappointment during my student days when I realized the discrepancy between what is possible in psychology and what is actually done in psychology. I think psychology produces a lot of interesting stuff, but it hadn’t fulfilled the promise that it had, at least in my mind as a student.
The approach of critical psychology that I take reaches back to that disappointment, studying at the University of Vienna, where we were confronted with what we can call late Americanized psychology, which ignores local traditions. There is the importation of American psychology into Austrian psychology. I realized this is very alien to our own experience and very alien to how we should think about psychological issues.
I wrote an article about how German-speaking psychology has an indigenous dimension, and American psychology has an indigenous dimension. Certain cultural, historical, political, social traditions have influenced American psychology, and the same is true for German psychology. Germans psychology has strong roots and strong traditions, and we did not pick up on that [in North America].
Just to give you one example, in university education [in North America], we didn’t pick up on Sigmund Freud. Of course, Freud was an Austrian in Vienna, but in the psychology curriculum [in North America] there wasn’t much interest in psychoanalysis or psychodynamics. This is just one example of what I mean by strong traditions. But then [in Austria], we learned about theorists in social psychology, which was to a certain degree alien. It didn’t help us understand what was going on in our culture and our society.
Beck: Is the type of research you do more common in Europe than in North America?
Teo: I don’t think this is the case anymore. In Germany, it has switched, as some people have talked about the success of the Americanization of German and Austrian psychology in the 1960s. So if you go back now to Germany or Austria, psychology is very much the same thing you have in the United States or Canada. The process of the globalization of American psychology is pretty much finished.
Maybe in the 1980s, when I started, there were still some remnants [of German psychology], and some people were still challenging what was going on. So we were influenced by some of those people in critical psychology, especially German critical psychology, who gave lectures and seminars in Vienna so that we could be knowledgeable about some of those counter traditions.
Beck: You describe your approach to research in terms of critical psychology, which I’m guessing is a term that most people, and maybe even some psychologists, are not that familiar with. Can you explain what you mean by critical psychology and what it is that you think makes your research unique?
Teo: That is a very difficult question, to define critical psychology. I think critical psychology is about doing justice in and through theory, doing justice with and to groups of people, and doing justice to the reality of society, history, and culture, as they constitute subjectivity and the discipline and profession of psychology.
Let me explain what I mean by doing justice in and through theory. Those like me who have a very strong interest in theory will be interested in whether psychology is doing justice to what we would conceive as the topics and the problems of psychology. Is psychology doing justice in its methodology? Is psychology doing justice in its applied practices? And so we apply theory to critique and try to reconstruct what happens in psychology and try to develop counter concepts.
I think what you’re probably more interested in, is the question about psychology doing justice with groups of people and to groups of people. So the questions: has psychology done justice to women in its past? Has psychology done justice to the poor in its research? Has it done justice to racialized minorities, to people outside of the center? Has it done justice to people with disabilities? Has it done justice to LGTBQ people? Has it done justice to community problems?
I think that is what I mean by people who question the degree to which psychology or mainstream psychology/traditional psychology has done justice with groups of people and to groups of people? So, in the critical tradition, you would want justice to be done with people and not against people or about people, but to include people in the theorizing and the research of psychology.
Beck: I like this idea of doing justice with a group of people. My sense is that when people hear the idea of doing justice to something in research, they often think: are you representing it accurately? Are you portraying it in an objective way? I like the way that you situate objectivity within the set of practices that the psychologists are carrying out. It’s not just this value-neutral thing that people strive for.
There’s a quote that I found in your work that I really liked; it said that “objectivity is not only an epistemic category, it’s also a value that guides science.” To me, this really speaks to what you’re saying now, this idea that psychological knowledge is situated within history, culture, society, and, in fact, ideology.
Can you clarify this point and explain how you see psychological knowledge, and maybe even science more generally, related to ideology?
Teo: First, to your first part of your question, I strongly believe that there is an entanglement between epistemology, ontology, and ethics. Use the example of objectivity— if you think about it, what does objectivity mean? Objectivity means we do justice to an object, but objectivity is also a value, an academic virtue. You have to be objective. If you are not objective, it is like an ethical condemnation. So [objectivity] is not only an epistemological category but also an ethical category.
I think the problem comes exactly from what you mentioned there, the question: what do we want to do justice to? Do we want to do justice to an abstract concept of science, or do we want to do justice to problems or people? And if you say, well, it has to be justice to people, you might choose a different methodology. So what is the point of having the greatest method, the greatest instrument, if it doesn’t do justice to the problem or doesn’t do justice to people? So this is how I would reconsider this entanglement between ethics and epistemology.
Beck: This reminds me of other parts of your research where you draw on post-colonial researchers who write about concepts like epistemic violence and epistemological violence. You described these as certain mechanisms of othering that operate within academic psychology, where a certain group of individuals, sometimes implicitly, is constructed in an inferior way to other groups. Can you clarify this point as well? How, just in the way that a group of people is represented, can that constitute a form of violence committed against them?
Teo: When I developed the concept of epistemological violence, I had a very specific dimension of scientific research in mind, namely the interpretation of data. That was the original intent of this concept. And as you said, post-colonial researchers such as Spivak had the idea that any kind of written text or spoken text about, let’s say, Indian culture is a form of epistemic violence.
I asked myself, does this work in psychology? I would say, yeah, it works in psychology, but it’s not precise enough. It’s not concise enough. And so I argued that epistemological violence is located in the interpretation of data.
I didn’t want to locate it in the realm of what kind of questions are asked, what kind of methodology is used, what kind of applications are suggested. With all of that, you can have epistemological violence as well. However, I wanted to analyze it in the scientific domain, meaning in the interpretation of data where traditional epistemologists or methodologists say, well, there’s a problem between what you receive as data and the interpretation of data.
So my point was that epistemological violence is committed when you interpret empirical research in a way that implicitly or explicitly constructs the other as inferior or problematic, despite the fact that you have an alternative, equally viable interpretation based on the data. So think about a finding of difference. You have two groups, you find a difference, and then you say it’s in the nature of group A to be less intelligent. That will be, for me, a form of epistemological violence because the finding of difference itself does not determine that type of interpretation.
Let’s say you find differences that there are fewer women at Ivy League universities than men. That’s an empirical finding. But then you interpret it as saying women are less intelligent. That would be a form of epistemological violence for me because the finding of a difference does not necessitate that type of interpretation. And that’s what I tried to point to when I talk about epistemological violence.
But coming back to your question, it’s not only in the domain of interpretation of data, but it’s also in the domain of what kind of questions are asked and what kind of methodological approach I produce, the methodology itself, where you can find these forms of violence. This is not what I did in my article, but let’s say you have a deficit model. When you are only interested in differences and interpret differences as deficits, you obviously may commit a form of epistemological violence.
You could even go further and say: who has primacy in the research relationship? It can be the researcher, or it can be the researched. If I say that I have primacy, and my interests are the most important because I can make a career in academia, I can make money, I can get grants, etc. So if I do research about people and I set the agenda, I set the questions, and I set the methods. That is also a problem inherent in traditional psychological methodology. And you have to move outside of traditional psychological methodology in order to find alternatives to that mindset, where primacy belongs to the researched—such as participatory action research.
So my point is you could also argue that injustices, forms of violence, can happen not only in the interpretation of empirical research but even in the chosen methodologies. As a critical psychologist, you would choose a method that is with and for people, not about and to people.
Beck: This points to so many important issues about how research is conducted in psychology. Within each step of the process, these decisions have to be made that aren’t necessarily guided by research, right? There are subjective decisions that need to be made by researchers that include things like: whose interests are being served? How are my colleagues going to perceive my work? What kind of credit will I get for this? Will this help me get tenure at some point down the line? All of these decisions could impact the people who are being researched, but these are often not accounted for in the research process.
Teo: I’ve called it drive-by research or fly-in research. Think about Canada and Inuit communities. What [psychologists] did with Inuit communities was say, “okay, I have an interesting question or an interesting hypothesis or an interesting instrument, let’s just go up to Inuit communities, fly-in, give them a question. Then, have them fill it out and fly home back to the city, into my lab, to my office, and then do a publication based on that.” That doesn’t serve the community at all. This is what I mean, the primacy of the researcher would not do justice to Inuit communities, and then somebody published research saying Inuit communities have a higher X than urban communities or something that doesn’t do anything for that community.
What is rewarded in a professional career is the number of publications, and it’s actually very difficult to do research with Inuit communities. It takes time, you need to make contacts, you have to get accepted. That is a process that is not rewarded. So drive-by, or fly-in, research is a necessary outcome of the existing practices in the discipline of psychology, as well as other disciplines.
Beck: This idea of epistemic violence reminds me of the way that psychiatric diagnoses are supposed to serve as clinical tools that clinicians and psychiatrists use to help them make decisions and do their work. But often these concepts get pushed beyond that, and they are used either as research constructs to group individuals in particular ways, or sometimes service-users are encouraged to understand themselves through these concepts, and they become something like identities for them. Does this connect to the sense of epistemic violence that you’re describing, or is this different?
Teo: I would not necessarily apply the term epistemic violence, but I would apply the trauma of power. Critical psychologists are interested in understanding power structures, to what degree individual subjectivity is connected to history, culture, and society, to which the discipline and practice of psychology are connected. We call that the psychologization of subjectivities.
With these looping effects, as Ian Hocking has called it, the fact that somebody develops a category and we start to understand ourselves through those categories is actually the power, or to a certain degree, “the success” of psychology, that people understand themselves more and more through those categories. It’s a process of power, in the meaning of [Michel] Foucault, that’s also a form of subjectification. So I understand myself through those categories and don’t use other concepts anymore to understand psychosocial processes.
For example, when former President Obama talks about an empathy-deficit in American society, he applies a psychological category to make sense of what’s going on in American society. But one could talk about the problems in American society in terms of inequality, in terms of capitalism, in terms of poverty rates, neoliberalism, as you pointed out, and in terms of social, economic, political categories. But we like to use more and more psychological categories.
I think the psychiatric categories are very popular because people have begun to understand themselves through these categories. We have to analyze that process of power that is expressed in psychology and psychiatry (in the psy-disciplines).
Lisa Cosgrove works a lot on financial conflicts of interest in psychiatry, and she showed empirically the financial conflicts of interest that DSM panel members have. Let’s say we take scientific criteria, scientific values—such as transparency—seriously. Why don’t people in their practice or their research disclose that there was a certain financial conflict of interest found when they dealt with this category.
This is hypothetical, of course, nobody would do that. But imagine a practitioner saying, “I use category X and it has been pointed out in the scientific literature that this category is afflicted with a high level of financial conflicts of interest. I still use this category, but I want to warn you, there’s a large financial conflict of interest.” That would be complete transparency if we take those scientific criteria seriously. But that is, of course, not done because it would undermine the neoliberal practice of psychology.
This is connected to what I’ve written about epistemic modesty and epistemic grandiosity. Epistemic modesty is the case that knowledge has become so complex, there’s so much recognition of the degree to which historical, cultural, and personal factors affect knowledge and limit knowledge. In psychology, you have millions of publications, and these are only the empirical publications. The logical consequence should be that we are all epistemologically modest.
But what we observe is the opposite, epistemological grandiosity, and people who believe they can assume a point of view from nowhere. They think that “I’m objective. Other people are subjective. My knowledge is, is true.”
The question is, why do we have [epistemological grandiosity]? Why is it that we have a logical outcome that would recommend epistemic modesty, but we have epistemic grandiosity? And this brings us back, I think, to neoliberalism. Academics are required to market or sell their products, knowledge, articles, books, and chapters. There are tenure and promotion procedures, and again, the quantity of publications and the amount of money you could attract, all of those neoliberal factors, play a role in success in academia.
It would be difficult to go on TV or the radio and say, well, actually we don’t know so much about those things, this is a very complex issue. Rather than saying, well, I’m an expert. I’m going to tell you how it is. So I think that is one of the neoliberal dimensions why people endorse more epistemic grandiosity over epistemic modesty.
Beck: I think that is such an interesting concept. Of course, any researcher is required to reveal direct financial contributions that they’re getting to fund the research that they’re currently engaged in. But what you’re suggesting is that we could take that requirement a step further, to an additional level of transparency and an additional level of honesty. We can say that many of the concepts that are being used are produced through research that’s funded by particular organizations.
I noticed you are using the term neoliberalism to talk about this. Can you define how you understand that term and how you think it’s relevant to some of the issues that we’re talking about right now?
Teo: It’s basically about the marketization of common goods. I’ve read some of the literature [on neoliberalism] in political and economic theory, David Harvey is one example. But as a psychologist, I’m much more interested in what [neoliberalism does] to subjectivity.
I’ve noticed, and I think other people have noticed this as well, that forms of subjectivity, forms of life, have been reduced more and more to a neoliberal form of subjectivity or neoliberal form of life. It seems kind of contradictory, we experience more and more forms of life, more and more forms of subjectivity, while at the same time they’re reduced to neoliberal forms of subjectivity.
Let me explain what I mean by that. If you go back to the 1920s, a German philosopher [Eduard] Spranger, a psychologist and educational theorist, described and criticized six forms of life: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, political, and religious. Say we assume that somebody might become a business person, somebody might become an academic, somebody might become a politician or an artist—or just engaged, so we say we are friends and live a social life.
We can discuss whether [Spranger’s concept] is efficient, whether this applies to all the upper classes, and so forth. But what we can find now is that these six forms of life that he describes, according to my theorizing, can be reduced to a neoliberal form of subjectivity, namely to an entrepreneurial form of life.
So you want to assume a theoretical form of life, if you want to become an academic, you also have to have an entrepreneurial form of subjectivity. If you want to become an artist, you also have to have an entrepreneurial form of life. If you want to become a religious leader, you have to endorse an entrepreneurial form of life.
This is what I mean by how, despite the expansion of seeming forms of life, you have molded into an entrepreneurial neoliberal form of subjectivity. By forms of subjectivity, I mean that society or culture uses certain molds that we have to suture ourselves into.
I’m not saying society forces you or society determines you. What is interesting in terms of subjectivities is that we suture ourselves into those forms of life. Take me, as an academic, for example. Because these neoliberal criteria, such as citations, the impact of journals, etc., have become important, I suddenly find myself looking at citations in ways that I never did before. Suddenly, because it has become an important criterion for evaluation in the tenure and promotion process in academic life, I look at how many citations I have— but nobody forces me to do that. I switched myself actively into these [neoliberal] forms of academic life.
So this is what I mean that it’s not society that forces or determines you to do such things. You suture yourself into some of these forms of life. And the question is, can you resist them? Can you expand them? Can you change them? Of course, it is very difficult to change forms of life, but people try to do it.
In critical psychology, we have the duty to assist people in finding different forms of subjectivity. This is very difficult because our individual subjectivity is connected with society, history, and culture. I cannot put myself into how society will be in 500 years, and I can’t go backward either. It is difficult to resist those forms.
I try to resist these forms a little bit where possible by trying not to talk, not to converse, not to present, not to write, not to comment in the way that is required. For an academic, it is very difficult because you have been socialized for years into that academic form of life and also into the entrepreneurial form of life. And my question is what does this mean as a psychologist? What does this mean for thinking? What does this mean for feeling? What does this mean for agency? What does this mean for motivation?
Beck: It strikes me that a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists are not trained in the humanities and other social sciences, like sociology, where they might be given a framework to think about these sorts of issues. Do you see this as partly a deficiency in the ways psychologists are trained, in that they’re trained in very specialized ways and don’t have the tools? Or do you think that it goes beyond that?
Teo: I absolutely agree. That’s why I have promoted what I call the psychological humanities. The idea is that we can learn about “the psychological” from history, from philosophy, from social theory, from political theory, from economic theory. Coming back to this question of doing justice to the topic of psychology. If you want to do justice to the psychological–let’s say psychological processes or psychological topics–you need to include the humanities. If you want to move beyond critique and reconstruction, you have to develop counter concepts. And that’s also what I’m trying to do. Develop counter concepts – a vocabulary, a language – that can address things that are not addressed anymore in psychology.
Epistemological violence is just one example of how we can address things that go on in the discipline, give it a name, and give people who are constructed in an epistemologically violent way a tool to label [and subvert] that violence.
Psychological humanities would be another counter concept. What I just referred to epistemic modesty, and what Michelle Fine has called circuits of dispossession–the idea that we should not just do only variable research, but we should look at circuits of dispossession when we do research.
What do they do in psychology? They look at variable dropout rates of certain ethnic groups in schools. Okay. This is the variable. Let’s look at another psychological variable—resilience or any other psychological variable—that we have available. Then look at how one variable relates to another variable. This doesn’t actually tell how circuits dispossession, systems of dispossession, actually work to lead certain groups to drop out of school.
And this is what I mean by connecting individual subjectivity to what I call inter-subjectivity and what I call socio-subjectivities. So this involves the nexus of one individual subjectivity with relations, but also with society, history and culture. If we do that, then we better understand psychological topics.
Beck: You provide very concrete ways in which neoliberalism shapes research and practices in psychology and psychiatry on different levels. On the one hand, we’re talking about how it shapes the ways that psychologists and psychiatrists think of themselves as professionals and the ways that they get reimbursed for the types of work that they do. On the other hand, it shapes the way they perceive and think about their work and changes the way they perceive who it is that they’re studying or who it is that they’re working with.
We were using the example of diagnosis before. A diagnosis should help clinicians think about what’s the best service to provide to this individual. But it goes beyond that. So often it is being used to think about, well, what’s the biology of this person. What could be unique about this person’s genetics that could be influencing them? And of course, there’s very little scientific research to conclude that any particular diagnosis has very specific genes connected to them. And yet this way of thinking and this way of speaking is so commonplace throughout the research.
Teo: I would ask, to what degree is the biomedical model doing justice to individual suffering? To what degree is a psychosocial model doing justice to individuals suffering? If you have only one model, a biomedical model, you leave out all the findings we have about how mental health is connected to inequality. The fact that increasing inequality increases mental health problems is then not addressed. From my perspective, if you want to do justice to mental health problems, you have to look at those elements as well.
To what degree do institutions and organizations, but in a broader sense, political economy contribute to mental health problems? [Richard] Wilkinson talks about how increasing inequality causes increases in mental health problems and their epidemiologists have different concepts of causality. If this is the case, why not tackle increasing wealth and income inequality? If you just focus on the individual and biology, I believe you’re not doing justice to the psychological reality of people.
Beck: This reminds me of another concept that you’ve written about recently, this concept of sub-humanism. I like the way that you connect this to the topic of migration. You talk about how this concept of sub-humanism serves to justify racist or otherwise fascist public policies. Can you speak a little bit about what you mean by this term, subhumanism, and why you see it as being so important to what’s going on in the world today?
Teo: What I’m working on is related to fascist subjectivity, which I differentiate from fascist politics. There’s lots of work on what constitutes fascist politics. With my questions about what constitutes fascist subjectivity, you cannot only look at processes, you have to look at content.
What exactly is the content of fascist subjectivity? In my argument, it’s a socio-relational ontology, meaning [the common assumption is that] there are not enough resources to go around for all human beings, and wealth in a broad sense should not include the other. Who is the other? There’s the racialized other, or the other is the sub-humanized other. It can be close others—the people who live among us, poor people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and distant others living in foreign countries.
In a fascist subjectivity, you have capitalist political-economic thinking combined with racism and/or sub-humanism. Think about German fascism. They wanted to exclude the truth. They wanted to exclude the communists. They wanted to exclude the gypsies, the gays, the lesbians, and, of course, outside of the country, also other people, but not everybody could be racialized.
The Jew could be racialized and sub-humanized, but the German fascists were also promoting the T4 euthanasia program, which led to the killing of people with mental or physical disabilities. The German person with a disability could not be racialized, but they could be sub-humanized. So they were below the standards of the human.
When I talk about subhumanism, I use two sources: one is an American source and one is a German source. The American source is [Lothrop] Stoddard, who wrote a book in 1922 called The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman. The underman is what I call subhuman and what he talks about as a person who measures under the standards of capacity and ability imposed by the social order. So what did he mean by that?
Yes, he meant non-European races, but also primitives, degenerates, lower classes, the proletariat, Bolsheviks, people who show disorderly, substandard, deviant behaviors. This leads back to your question, “who could be constructed as a sub-human?” The communist or Bolshevik could be constructed as a subhuman, but also the person with mental disabilities, physical disabilities, because they are below the standards of capacity imposed by social order, according to Stoddard.
The second source that I’m using is a German source, which is an educational manual by the SS, and it’s called the subhuman. This manual illustrates racism with tables, figures, numbers, and statistics. This is what would be called scientific racism, which goes back to at least the 18th century, where measurements were taken regarding things like facial angles and skulls.
Sub-humanism works only with images. You can see who is subhuman. You don’t need a scientific definition. The person that runs over the border is subhuman. The person who doesn’t cross the border in an orderly way, but goes into the desert, comes from Mexico to the United States, that’s a subhuman. The person who runs with a child over the border, that’s a sub-human.
Subhumanism is much more malleable than racism. Anybody could become a subhuman under the right circumstances. Think, if you have to flee your country, well, quite quickly you could become a subhuman by ending up in circumstances where you cannot act in a standard way anymore. If you’re forced to run, if you’re forced not to change your clothes, if you’re forced to sleep on the floor, if you’re put into cages, then you’re going to develop certain behaviors that make you dehumanized, and then you become a subhuman.
Subhumanism has an immediate action imperative, versus with racialized groups, there’s a long-term action imperative. With racism, yes, they are told they shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t do that, they cannot go into certain schools, for instance. But if you’re a subhuman—you’re a parasite, you’re a cockroach—then we immediately have to do something with you. It has an immediate action imperative.
If you’re subhuman, we’re not going to let you into our country anymore, and we’re going to put you immediately into cages. We’re not going to give you food anymore. We’re not going to give you toothbrushes. What is so interesting about the concept of subhumanism to me is that you don’t need a category of racism even if some people can be subsumed in the racialized categories.
Indeed, the Nazis considered people with mental or physical disabilities subhuman. I mean, they advertised it in their magazines. I remember one of those cover pages on a magazine where they showed a picture of a person with mental disabilities, and they made the argument that it costs so much money to take care of this person, and this is also your money. So [the argument is] there is a financial dimension to subhumanism and that’s why we should get rid of subhumans. That’s why we should exterminate the subhumans.
Beck: This is such a great thread that connects so much of what we’ve already talked about. I like this distinction between subhumanism as an impulse that requires this immediate action and operates on the level of what you call fascist subjectivity, and certain forms of scientific racism and fascist public policy that end up getting constructed as a [psychosocial] defense mechanisms to protect that impulse of subhumanism that emerges initially.
Teo: If you look at the broader culture, there is an increasing division in visual media between humans and subhumans. Take zombie movies, for example. Zombie shows are very popular—Walking Dead and spinoffs. What is the zombie?
The zombie is literally a sub-human. It doesn’t exist, but it’s literally subhuman—meaning you can do anything with a zombie you want to do because they are threatening us. They’re taking away our way of being, our way of life. They’re taking away our wealth. I can name them. I can cut their heads off. I can stab them. I can exterminate them. It’s not only that I can do these things, but it becomes my duty to do so.
I’m not saying zombie movies are responsible for that, but there is already this ontology in our broader culture that there are humans and there are subhumans. It prepares us to accept that we construct certain people as subhuman.
I’ve made the point [in my research] that migrants are constructed as subhumans. So we can do the things we could never imagine doing to Canadian citizens or American citizens, it has an action imperative, and it finds support among—hopefully not the majority, yet— a substantial amount of people supporting actions against migrants.
A question that is perhaps more relevant to your interests is to what degree people with mental disabilities made into subhumans. I haven’t studied that as much as I should, but there might be a certain tendency where this is occurring. As researchers have pointed out, there’s obviously a much lower amount of violent acts by people who have mental disabilities, but once it occurs, the notion that this person is subhuman and we can do whatever we want to them might emerge.
Beck: What would you like to see done differently in the psy-disciplines, like psychology and psychiatry? You’ve talked about this idea of epistemic modesty, and I think that would be a great start. But could you give an example of how you see this concept of epistemic modesty as important to psychiatry? Like how could you see psychiatry or mental health be understood differently through this concept of epistemic modesty?
Teo: I think it would change the discipline. It’s very difficult for the psy-disciplines, for some of the reasons that I already mentioned. But there are also internal reasons such as the low status of psychology in the sciences or the lowest status of psychiatry in the medical disciplines. And for that reason, epistemic modesty is a very difficult virtue to embody. But it would look differently if this is done.
Exactly the way this is done, I’m not sure. It’s probably a slow process. It’s also a question to which degree this is even possible, or is it just counterfactual as a reflexive tool, as a reflexive concept, for people who have some awareness about this problem. But I don’t encounter it so often, to be honest, epistemic modesty and speaking, not for psychiatry, but for psychology, you find the opposite trend.
Psychology tries to sell itself as a science. This is what I call hyper-science. We have all of these scientific tools, all of these scientific methodologies, to hide that we are not just natural science, but that we are also a cultural, historical, and social science. The apparatus and technologies of science do not always do justice to human problems or to human topics.
Epistemological modesty would mean being modest about claims to the scientific status of psychology and talking instead about the role of culture, history, and society in psychiatric and psychological knowledge, as well as the role of pharmaceutical interests in psychiatric knowledge. All of these things would not abandon psychiatric knowledge but would relativize psychiatric and psychological knowledge, and contextualize it.
That is very difficult to do in the end, so I’m not exactly sure how we can go about it other than through some of the terminology we have been talking about. To talk about epistemological violence, for instance, has some impact, but I don’t think it is a broad concept that will go into an introductory textbook of psychology. It has not the impact of reaching a broad mainstream audience. It might go into a textbook of theoretical psychology, or in the history of psychology. But it doesn’t reach traditional mainstream audiences, and that is their reality, which does not prevent me from doing what I’m trying to do.
Beck: You have talked before about the concept of agency as being something that is not necessarily an individual trait, but a form of collective action, which can have the power to change social and economic realities for people. This is something that I’ve seen happen within the mental health community with peer support groups or peer to peer movements forming. Instead of continuing to see a professional, or maybe in addition to it, those who have received mental health services support each other and form communities outside of professional contexts. They also fight against some of the injustices that they feel like they’ve experienced. Do you see that as something that’s a potential moving forward, and is this anything that you’ve encountered in your research? How is this form of collective agency changing either psychology or mental health contexts?
Teo: Let me discuss a few dimensions of that concept. When we are confronted with the question, as individuals, “what should I do?” from a critical tradition, being aware of the psychological humanities, you have at least three answers to these questions.
I can do it instrumentally—cost-benefit analysis. I can do it ethically, meaning, “what do I conceive of as the meaning of life? What does it mean to make a good psychologist?”—this type of answer. And I can do it morally in the sense of what one ought to do. If I find a purse on the street, what should I do? If I say instrumental, I keep the money since I just found it, that would be an instrumental answer. The ethical answer is, “I’m an honest person. That’s not what I conceive of myself. That’s why I turn in this wallet.” Or in a moral sense what ought one to do, so is there a generalizable principle? Should one return wallets one finds on the streets, somebody might argue there is a generalizable answer.
The question “what should I do?” can’t be answered instrumentally, ethically, or morally. The problem is that under neoliberalism, agency has been reduced to instrumental answers. Everything is supposed to be answered in terms of cost-benefit analysis. What do you study? Cost-benefit. Who is my partner? Cost-benefit? What should I do? Cost-benefit. This is colonization of this complex question into instrumental rationality.
What is the counter concept? Well, let’s answer our research question ethically and morally, but also let’s move away from “what should I do to…” to “what should we do?” If I move from what should I do to what should we do then I have completely different possibilities, and I might not be trapped anymore in this purely individualistic mindset where my agency actually restricts me.
So, should I personally have the best healthcare? Or would it be better if there is a collectively defined health care? If I answer instrumentally for myself, then I might get some cost-benefit, individual advantage, but at the same time, I actually restrict my options in other domains. The point is if we move from “I” to “we,” we open up new possibilities of agency on the political level, but also on the mental health level.
What comes to mind for me is the hearing voices project. The hearing voices project moves away from a purely individualistic treatment of hearing voices to a more collective approach where we talk in groups about hearing voices, where we try to manage all voices and not just get rid of our voices. That is, for me, an example of collective agency.
I think the same thing is when people apply participatory action research. So it is not only “how can I get rid of my personal experiences of racism?” But how do we install circumstances under which racist expressions become less likely and more difficult? If we try to get rid of stop and frisk policies as a collective, then it also benefits me as an individual.
This is what I mean by saying collective agency also benefits me as an individual. This is of course very difficult to think in those terms, because the process of neoliberalization is also a process of individualization and increased focus on individuals and, actually, families. So everything is about what concerns me or my family. If this is the only focus, we lose the community’s perspective, collective society, culture, and history, making it more difficult to advance real solutions.
Beck: Do you have anything else that you’re currently working on or anything that you’re planning for the future, that you’d like to share any additional information about?
Teo: Well, I’m very interested in the concept of die-ability, and this relates to fascist subjectivity. It also relates to sub-humanism, the question of who is die-able [able to die] in this society? By that I mean not only disposable—if you die, you don’t need a replacement anymore—disposable, you can have replacements. Of course, there’s a certain overlap between die-able and disposable, but the question is who is die-able in our culture relates back to migration, to the pandemic, to increasing fascist subjectivities.
Who was die-able in classical fascism? The Jew, the gypsy, the communist, gays, disabled persons, and whoever was conceived of as an enemy of the state. In a liberal democracy such as ours, we also have a certain form of die-ability. Asylum seekers and their children are die-able. So think about people who died in the Mediterranean sea in Europe, they were conceived as being die-able. In the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the elderly who are die-able. People with pre-existing medical conditions are die-able, indigenous people and precarious workers are even die-able. Prisoners and LGTBQ members. When it comes to law enforcement, blacks are die-able.
When it comes to the COVID pandemic, who is die-able for economic reasons? I mean, they clearly bring economic reasons up when they talk about the die-ability of people. To keep an American capitalist economy going, we accept that certain people are die-able. For me, this is a form of fascist subjectivity.
So this is one stream of thought, which is more directly related to thinking about the pandemic. But I have a larger project, as a theory of subjectivity. This is difficult as a theoretical project because it’s obviously so encompassing, and so many people have already talked about it.
And the third project is, as we’ve pointed to throughout, a more systematic analysis of the degree to which epistemology, ethics, ontology, and aesthetics are actually entangled. It will explore arts-based research while working towards a systematic understanding of the entanglement of epistemology and ethics. To what degree is epistemology actually an ethical project? I think you can show evidence or examples of this.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations