JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard

April 16, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Odessa Hewitt-Bernhard is a fourth-year student studying philosophy and ethics, society, and law at the University of Toronto. She is especially interested in ethics, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. Outside of school, Odessa has spent the past five years working at a harm reduction centre in Parkdale. After her undergraduate degree, Odessa hopes to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. Odessa is one of our 2023-24 JHI Undergraduate Fellows.

What are your main research interests?

Broadly, I’m interested in the ways that phenomenology and hermeneutics can inform ethics. Thinking about ethics through phenomenology and hermeneutics positions people in a unique way towards others. These two fields focus on a direct engagement with others, which creates a new way of thinking about ethics beyond a particular set of rules or obligations. I’m especially interested in the ways that engagement with others on the level of the intimate can pose a challenge to the notion sovereignty (both individual and political), and challenge distinctions between those inside and outside of a political community.

What project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

I’m currently working on a project about disenfranchised grief, a term that refers to losses that aren’t socially recognized or publicly acknowledged (miscarriages are usually cited as an illustrative example, think also about highly stigmatized deaths, losses where the relationship wasn’t recognized, losses that aren’t deaths, and so on). In my non-academic life, I work as an administrative assistant at a harm reduction agency. Disenfranchised grief is a pressing topic in the harm reduction sector right now because stigma associated with substance use often means that drug-poisoning deaths are not recognized or acknowledged. This project gave me the chance to look into disenfranchised grief on a wider scale. I’m investigating both why disenfranchised grief occurs – that is, what social and political structures determine which lives are grieved and which lives are not grieved – as well as why exactly disenfranchised grief poses an ethical problem. These questions have lent themselves to a larger exploration of the disjunct between political orders and our intimate lives, the way that the nature and importance of our relationships fail to be captured by politics.

How has your JHI Fellowship experience been so far?

It’s been wonderful! This is the first experience I’ve had where I’ve been free to explore my own interests without the structure of a course or major time constraints. It almost feels decadent or overindulgent to have the space and time to work on this project. I really appreciate the opportunity to be in an interdisciplinary setting and to get to know the wide variety of work that the other fellows are doing. I think philosophy is at its best when it comes out of a deep engagement with the world and the JHI has been the perfect space to spark that engagement. Have conversations that challenge my own disciplinary fetters has been one of the most gratifying parts of the experience. I’ve also deeply enjoyed getting to know the other fellows. It’s been especially helpful as an undergrad to be able to talk to people at various points in their career and to get a sense of what working in academia is like. And of course, the JHI coffee machine has done a lot to propel my work forward.

Can you share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by?

It would be impossible to do a project on the politics of grief without reading Antigone! I first read Jean Anouilh’s version of the play in high school. I remember it being one of the first times I was really struck by a text. Revisiting it now, it’s incredibly relevant to my own work – the tension between Antigone’s need to bury her brother and the political need to have this loss go un-mourned, and the challenge that grieving the ungrievable poses to power. But the same things that initially moved me are still there - the way that the characters are trapped in their roles and in their story as well as the life that Anouilh breathes into the heroine.

I’ve also been re-reading Leslie Fienberg’s novel Stone Butch Blues, a classic of lesbian literature. There’s a scene where the main character is barred from participating in a funeral because she refuses to dress in women’s clothing that I’ve dwelled upon quite a bit throughout this project.

What is a fun fact about you?

I love walking around.