A Conversation with Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky
Interview by Linh Nguyen.
Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky is a Philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His research concerns the relationship between language and the structures of social power. Paul’s primary interests include race, gender, and the intersection of the two, as well as the concepts we use to make sense of the existence and experiences of non-human animals.
We talked to Paul about veganism, growing up in Bendigo, and the current state of philosophy in Australia.
Why study philosophy? What does it mean to be a philosopher in contemporary times?
I love philosophy to bits. Being passionate about something as technical, complex and sophisticated as philosophy is a rewarding thing (at least sometimes). If one were to reflect just briefly on what it is to be a philosopher, you might come up with the following descriptions: an old white guy with a flowing beard; a tortured soul burdened by existential concerns; or possibly a spiritually enlightened person who only speaks in parables.
Philosophy is in dire times, and this is at least for two important reasons. The first is that philosophers have forgotten how to relate to the public; in particular, Western analytic philosophy is often done behind impenetrable doors, which means comprehension by anyone outside of the discipline is a monumental task. An unfortunate fact about philosophy in today’s climate is that if you’re not doing a branch called 'analytic philosophy' (Western philosophy) then you run the risk of not being taken seriously as a philosopher.
I find that this also comes with the suppression of knowledge; of ideas; of alternative ways of living and being. The second is that philosophy departments in universities are now feeling, more than ever, the burdens of capitalism. Philosophy has always traded on prestige, and for this reason it was able to evade concerns about its economic output. It seems that we can no longer rely on the production of knowledge. For these reasons philosophy departments in universities are being shut down, fewer people are being hired, competition for jobs in philosophy makes it unreasonable for anyone to assume that they’ll be able to safely land a working gig. So, where do I see the trajectory of my academic career? It’s hard to see past the end of my PhD.
I see it as this growing trend where disciplines in the humanities—philosophy, literature, history—are being increasingly devalued within the 'neoliberal university'. Funding is decreased, academic teaching is increasingly casualised, there is a demand to view students as consumers.
The modern academic philosopher is burdened by administration. I take this to be an effect of capitalism; philosophers can’t just rely on the production of knowledge; they must also be in the rotten business of money making. And as you’ve suggested, this has flow-on effects: teaching philosophy has become irregular and less secure; we are pushed into treating our students as clients or customers; and we face constant cuts because we quite often fail to show that we are financially beneficial.
To the question of what it means to be an academic in this day and age, I suppose there are at least two answers: (1) just another cog in the capitalist machine or (2) a locus for resisting dominant structures. I am optimistic; I think we live in a time where (2) is becoming the more appropriate answer.
What have some of the challenges been so far?
Philosophy is hard. This is due to the nature of discipline itself. However, there are also plenty of institutional challenges that make philosophy a nightmare for some—especially women, people of colour, people living with disabilities, those from low socio-economic backgrounds. We have been socialized to think that ‘serious’ philosophy is a white man’s game. If you happen to find yourself at an axis or intersection of oppression then the game is significantly harder for you. The cultural milieu of philosophy is combative; as philosopher Sally Haslanger says, what we do as philosophers is 'attack, target, and demolish an opponent'. My experience is that thoughts and doubts concerning the worth one’s own ideas constantly plague those who are on the outside.
There are very rewarding aspects of philosophy, despite how alienating it can be. It’s rare that anyone is afforded the luxury of thinking all day, it’s even rarer that anyone is afforded the luxury of hanging around a bunch of people who think all day, sharing ideas, and solving problems (or at least trying to). The philosophical community is a peculiar bunch, but when you are peculiar yourself, it’s nice to find a home with people who understand you.
Your academic research focuses on the philosophy of language and the relationship between language and social domination. Can you elaborate on this?
If language is partly responsible for how we (consciously and unconsciously) interact with others, then those interested in social justice should be interested in revising what concepts we have available to us. What is important to notice is that concepts of this kind are partly linguistic in nature; they are the lexical items we use to make sense of ourselves and others within a social environment. Given that language is so important in how we conceptualise the social world, and moreover how we interact with others, we should be conscious of how language is involved in domination and subordination.
What do you see as the role of philosophy and the philosophical intellectual tradition within our current political climate? Do you feel that the specialised knowledge produced and circulated within academia can be disconnected from the lived realities that people face?
Philosophy offers at least two very valuable things to those politically inclined: a framework of critique, and the possibility of introducing new concepts.
Critique is critical; it is an ability to dissect the social world in order to expose some of its cancerous parts. What’s more is that critique has a revealing aspect. It can uncover suppressed knowledge, and make prominent those who have been previously left in the dark. And this leads to the second point. Given that concepts are so vital in the shaping of social reality, philosophy offers the possibility of weeding out bad concepts, and introducing new ones. With the introduction of new concepts comes the restructuring of our practices. If we can take hold of what concepts are introduced into the public language, then we have a strong chance of overcoming structural injustice.
This is particularly pertinent today. The current political climate is emotionally laden; people often forgo rationalistic commitments and are instead swayed by demagoguery. This relies seriously upon a sense of political and personal identity; people are unified through propagandistic means that bypass rational will. As it stands, the people who determine what concepts are prominent in the public language are the major players in global politics.
We just need to think of the introduction of the concept 'fake news' to realise how quickly our conceptual practices can change. However, I think what has been successful in fighting against this new wave of conservatism is showing that certain concepts (and beliefs) are downright unreasonable. If philosophy is in any kind of business, it’s reason; and if reason is a way to persuade others to believe what’s right and good, then we should use the tools of philosophy to fight the good fight.
There is no doubt that philosophy is guilty of esotericism. Once upon a time, philosophy and the public got on famously. But somewhere along the way philosophy became overly technical; it became a language in its own right, requiring years of training before one could make sense of a measly sentence. I think things are becoming much better.
Applied philosophy has become very popular, and thinking about social justice problems has become somewhat of a fashion. This is both good and bad; good insofar as mainstream philosophy wants to weigh in on social structural issues, and bad insofar as fashion is subject to change. Hopefully I’m wrong about this, and that philosophy treats social justice issues as a moral imperative, instead of low-hanging fruit to be picked.
Do you feel that there is adequate representation of non-European thinkers within the philosophical cannon? Earlier this year, the London University SOAS (School of Oriental and Asian Studies) generated a lot of outrage and media coverage when students campaigned to 'decolonise the curriculum.'
If you were to skim through the philosophy syllabus at any university in Australia, you'd be hard-pressed to find more than one person of colour in any given unit. There is nowhere near an adequate representation of non-European thinkers; as if we have nothing important or valuable to offer despite thousands of years of thought. This is part and parcel of subordination; make other forms of knowledge inferior, and feed the status quo. We have done this for far too long, and we have ignored many important voices.
I can’t say much about other departments, although within the arts generally I suspect things are quite bad. In philosophy, it's very whitewashed. More than this, it is a cis-man whitewash. This is not to say that there aren’t wonderful people of colour in the philosophy world; Dr Monima Chadha is head of the philosophy department at Monash University, and she does wonderful and important work. However, this does not represent the current state of play. I recently got back from the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference, the largest philosophy conference in Australasia, and despite having the '-asian' part tagged at the end, it was overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. Philosophy has serious work to do in order to reach a state of equity. While it has a moral obligation to do this, I think it’s even in philosophy’s best interest too. If we are collectively involved in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, then we should be interested in the truths and knowledge possessed by marginalised folk–perhaps the problems of philosophy could be solved by just paying attention to the right voices.
When did you first have an understanding of 'race' and racial identity, and your position within these categories?
I grew up in a country town called Bendigo, one of the whitest places in Australia (statistically and pejoratively). When I reflect on my time there, I can recall quite vividly that I was treated differently from others, and to some extent I had an understanding that it had something to do with being Asian. However, what is a fascinating phenomenon is that I never had the feeling that I was being treated unfairly–I only felt that it was my lot in life to be treated this way. For this reason, I can’t say that I had a good understanding of racial identity in my time in Bendigo; my identity as Asian was only an identity as different; as being not white. It was only when I become interested in social or applied philosophy that I came to fully appreciate my heritage; I came to understand my Asian identity as Asian (more specifically, Filipino).
For the last couple of years I have tried to embrace this identity, to familiarise myself with my culture. I remember not long ago that I felt relieved that it was only my middle name that gave away the fact that I was Asian so that publishers wouldn’t immediately reject my papers on racist grounds. But now, I take my name to be an important element of who I am, and where I would like philosophy to go.
My mother is Filipino and my father is (mostly) Russian. There is a sense of cultural pride on both sides. Filipino culture is very family oriented. Recently I visited my family in the Philippines who live in what’s called a ‘compound’ where most members of the family live in two or three adjoining houses surrounding a common area. In the common area is every family member almost at any time of the day, spanning from young children to grandparents, collected together with all voices speaking at once. To be honest, it was an overwhelming experience. In Bendigo, I only had my immediate family, so the house was never too loud. I think because of this, I found it hard to engage in what seems to be a Filipino rite of passage; to just be around one another with only the purpose to speak and eat food. Being a solitary kind of person, something I think I have inherited from my father, it is difficult to make sense of an aspect of my racial and cultural identity that is overtly extroverted.
How do you square your veganism and your identification with an Asian culture where meat-dishes are symbolic of identity?
I take this to be a seriously tough philosophical problem. The culinary aspect of Filipino culture, as well as many cultures, seems to play a strong role in Filipino identity. Because I am moral vegan, I have strong moral reasons for thinking that the consumption of non-human animals is morally objectionable. This affects my identity in at least two ways. First, I am seen as aberrant within my broader Filipino family; a strange artefact of leftist Western culture. Second, I am in a position to be morally condemning of my family, and this creates a distance between me and Filipino cultural practices.
What I can say is that there is more to being Filipino than eating meat – despite how prominent it is in Filipino culture. I suppose this is true of any culture. Keeping this in mind allows one to feel at home with their culture, while expressing doubts about certain aspects. It is also important to recognize that cultures change by virtue of the attitudes of its members. Culture does not exist apart from the agents that comprise it; it lives through each individual and their interaction with others. If the people have attitudes that contradict incumbent cultural values, it is no affront to cultural identity, for who they are is dependent on them.
Do you have any advice for emerging academics?
Given that I am only an aspiring academic myself perhaps it would be a strange thing for me to give advice on. However, what I can give by way of information for those interested in philosophy, or related areas, is that it is tough; tough as an intellectual discipline, tough to get a job, and tough to be continually in love with. Philosophy places a serious burden on your mental life for many different reasons. One reason is that the content is typically hard to make sense of and so you might come to question your own abilities; another is because the nature of philosophy is unfortunately competitive you’re up against people you believe to be smarter than you; and yet another is because the prospects of having a career in philosophy is increasingly unlikely.
All I have to say with respect to this is that in our immorally capitalistic society, we think of university in terms of what it can offer in helping us find a vocation. This kind of brainwashing overlooks the value of philosophy. The value of philosophy is to be sought in its very practice, not in what it can offer as remuneration. To practice structured thinking allows us a number of wonderful things; some more important than others. To satiate our curiosity, to be a part of a community of like-minded people, and most importantly to keep the world honest; to ensure that we are not vehicles for the interests of others. If you are to love philosophy, love it for these reasons, and they will be enough.
Who are you inspired by?
There are a number of wonderful people who I am inspired by. Of those in my life, there are many. Madison Griffiths, who works tirelessly to produce an incredible amount of original, insightful and thoroughly important work on social justice issues. My father, Michael Podosky, who is so seriously motivated by philosophical questions that he takes great chunks out of his day just to sit and think about intractable problems. My mother, Nonnie Podosky, who reminds me to be proud of my cultural heritage in the face of white resentment. And my friend, Holly Lawford-Smith, who is fiercely intelligent yet represents a way of being a philosopher that cuts against antiquated ideals of masculine dominance.
Now for the clichéd answer. As a philosopher, it’s important to be inspired by ideas, by problems, and even sometimes by solutions (if you’re lucky). What can be a wonderful effect of this form of inspiration is that ideas are a dime a dozen if you take time to converse sincerely with people. Everyone has something to say. And taking this seriously, everyone can be a source of inspiration so long as one is willing to listen.
What are you currently listening to?
To me, this is strangely high-stakes question, at least socially speaking. When I am asked this question in causal conversation, I try to muster up artists or songs that might bring with them a social cash-value. This in itself is an interesting sociological question. But truth be told, I don’t really listen to music. I don’t mean to say that I am personally against music, it isn’t a kind of nihilistic stance against it. What seems to happen is that I never think to deliberately seek out music to listen to, and I am sure that this is a great shame. However, I do quite a bit of driving, and when I'm in the car I am usually listening to 1026 ABC News.
What are you currently reading?
Philosophy; and it never stops. What is nice about current philosophy, despite its still discriminatory culture, is the popularisation of a brand of analytic philosophy that has a critical eye on society and its practices. This is the kind of philosophy that I am a part of, and for this reason, I am currently reading theorists such as Sally Haslanger, Miranda Fricker, and Elizabeth Camp.
How do you practice self-care?
Philosophy turns people peculiar, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. But, what is especially comforting is being surrounded by people who are equally as peculiar as I am (if not more). This means I try to attend as many talks as possible, knowing that I’ll be in a crowd of wonderfully bizarre, and bright people.
Outside of philosophy, self-care is particularly easy in my life having the partner that I do. Madison is a writer, an artist, and a poet, and more impressive is that her talent for one is not outweighed by any other; not only is she a jack of all trades, but she is also a master of all. I am privileged to be with someone so gifted. More than this, however, is that she is my best friend. Being around someone—day in, day out—whose ethical and political values match my own, whose humour is just as strange, and who enjoys eating buckets of popcorn, means that caring for myself requires only that I be in her presence.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
There are two ways of interpreting this question, one of which I feel a more suited candidate to answer. One way I think that this question could be construed is that being Asian-Australian requires reconciling, at least to some degree, a distinctive foreign culture within a dominant local culture—where the dominant culture, typically, looks unfavourably upon the foreign one. This brings with it a unique kind of experience along with a litany of hardships; the kind of hardships that I do not feel that I have been subjected to. While my mother is Filipino, my upbringing, in spite of eating Filipino food and attending the occasional Filipino dance, was more or less white in its nature. For this reason, I participated in white cultural practices.
But, the second way that the question might be construed is that being Asian-Australian means being an Asian person living in Australia; being an Asian person participating in white cultural practices as an Asian. This comes with a list of different kinds of experiences, and I feel I am more suited to answering this question. I should say that my answer may not evoke inspiration in others. Being Asian-Australian is not easy; by my mere appearance, the set of permissible actions that I can undertake is severely delimited – this is true for any oppressed minority. When I participate in any kind of activity, I cannot participate in it without the confines of being Asian: if it’s sports, I participate as an Asian playing sport; if it’s philosophy, I participate as an Asian doing philosophy; if it’s going out for drinks, I participate as an Asian going out for drinks. And with this comes social regulation. I can only do these things in a way consistent with the rules of being Asian within white culture, which may mean that I am not meant to do these things at all.
There is a positive side to all of this though, and that is resilience. Virtue is laborious to cultivate, but it becomes a necessity when there is pervasive injustice. To be Asian-Australian, at least in the way that I feel that I can answer, is to respond to challenges in ways more virtuous than those who do not suffer from their actions being regulated.