Sunday, February 22, 2009

To Patrick Durgin: on Disability Theory

The following is a version of a letter I wrote to Patrick Durgin this past fall after his reading at St. Mark's Church:

One of the first sources to get me thinking about disability (the term at least) in some of the ways I still find it useful to think about it is Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. In my copy of Being and Time the translator uses the term "dis-ability" to indicate a situation of anti- or non-instrumentality. This non-instrumentality is central to Heidegger's philosophy inasmuch as to “dis-able,” that is, for technology (or the "self" as a technology) to break down or become inoperable, demands one think again what one does: what they are (Being), but also how what they are is mediated technologically and/or socially (however I realize Heidegger wld never deign use a word like "social").

Reading very little of the actual theoretical literature that has emerged through disability studies, I wonder if the term "technology" here could not be replaced with the term "built environment"—the disability theorist's sense of the environment as something socially conditioned, and therefore naturalizing. To be anti-“ablist” or pro “disablist” would then be to want to orient (or not orient) one's world through the non-instrumental—through a sense that all are better off (in a variety of senses: ethical, legal, political… for instance) when everyone has to continually rethink (their) embodiment in relation to environment.

In this way (and this is why I think movement research/dance, design, and architecture in particular should have an enormous stake in disability culture's/theory's future) a disablist orientation also becomes the primary orientation for thinking. To think proceeds from a defamiliarization or interruption of habitual embodiments, and therefore of the ways ideology extends from embodiment, and vice versa.

As Robert Kocik has noted of the Nonsite Collective’s emergent curriculum about disability, Nonsite's wager tends to be an aesthetic one. Something that has interested me in your critical offerings at the Nonsite Collective’s website, and your focus on my talk, as well as Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson's "Manifesto for the Disabled Text," is how metaphors do not do enough to think through how a discussion of disability based on the experience of the disabled could engage, and be complicated by, aesthetics.

Having now read Tobin Sieber's book Disability Theory, I realize that I have a number of stakes in disability culture/theory which extend beyond the metaphors I may have offered in my talk “Allegories of Disablement” this past summer, and which Joyelle and Johannes offer in their “manifesto”.

First of all, I think disability culture/theory/aesthetics could radicalize a discourse that has been ongoing for a long time now, but recently (only in the last twenty years) has become a “hot topic” for theoretical discussion. This is the one that's been established by the Slovenians (Zizek et al), Alain Badiou, Jacques Ranciere, Judith Butler and others concerning the place of the subaltern within politics, and the question of what constitutes the subject as an "event" (Badiou's term).

One of the crucial things that interests me in regards to Tobin's book is the way it singles out disability as a metadiscourse of subalternality. The disabled, in his account, are the oppressed of the oppressed insofar as images of the disabled (and ways disability is metaphorized) figure against every oppressed group historically. In this sense, underlying disability theory is a new messianic discourse, or (in secular terms) discourse of liberation. At the core of any particular identity politics is already a metadiscourse of cooperative struggle, and of the ways that hegemony functions. Among struggles that (unfortunately) don't cease to be ongoing and therefore matter (Feminism, Black power, post-colonialism, etc.) disability injects a whole new set of challenges and reluctances on behalf of the dominant power structures, as well as existing liberation struggles.

Though I come away with many things from Tobin's book, the other major thing that the book made me think about are the limits of embodiment itself (and this seems an understatement as I write it). Before I left SUNY-Buffalo most of my research was actually veering towards a discourse about affect and embodiment. Some of the books
I liked most in this discourse were Charles Altieri's The Particulars of Rapture, and the work of theorists such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Alphonso Lingis and others. That a lot of attention has swerved back to both (post) New York School genealogies in poetry, and the New Narrative movement of San Francisco and elsewhere convinces me that affect and embodiment are "of the hour" (as if they were not always of the hour for people whose bodies are threatened and challenged on a daily basis) insofar as our world is longing for new affective models, cultures and commons.

In fact, recently I read a transcription of some dinner conversations between artists in 2005, where someone was speaking of the need for new "affective cultures" (you can find this exchange in Creative Time's book Who Cares). I think disability culture, at the risk of overly aggrandizing or cathecting it, poses a limit discourse of affective culture/embodiment studies.

When I spoke in San Francisco last summer at Rob Halpern's and Lee Azus' house, the poet Amber DiPietra was in the audience. While DiPietra and I didn't get to talk all that much during the evening, she had many insightful things to say during the conversation and Q&A following the talk. What she said, in particular, that has stuck with me, if not become somewhat of a refrain for me as I think about disability and poetics, was her phrase "my body is the problem". The context for this comment was a discussion about Bhanu Kapil’s teaching, wherein Amber stated that what she took-away from Bhanu’s practice was a commitment to proceeding through problems rather than formal investigations.

I am struck by DiPietra's statement, her proposition if you will, as a heroic moment of an emergent discourse about disability and aesthetics. Partly because it was said so resolutely—from a position of conviction and experience. But also because it expresses exactly what I think about any body (whether legally disabled or not) that would claim disability: that it demands to occupy a position where every body is thrown into question in all senses of "question" (legal, ontic, aesthetic, practical, ethical...). Is the body in fact "the case of everything existing" (Wittgenstein)? DiPietra's statement also gives a new force to Spinoza's proposition (another refrain for my thinking): "we have not yet determined what a body can do". It is only in relating how ability and disablilty are constituted that we have any real knowledge of what doing or a problem, for that matter, are.

If I could come back to just one connection before concluding here it would be wanting to connect this sense of the disabled body as "the problem" to the messianic kernel of disability theory. Which is that the disabled body, interpellated as such (and I do think the term interpellation is most fitting here, especially when it comes to the problems of “visibility” you identify in your work; or "drag"—who "passes" or is noticed/identified as being disabled), become the very limit case of the social itself, and of the socius/public sphere as it is constructed ideologically and practically. So that, when DiPietra says that her body is "the problem"--a proposition that she means as an aesthetic one, which is to say: my body creates the very problems that art is to evidence, if not resolve--one must take this as a political-ethical statement too. Here the particular, the most particular bodies our society chooses to acknowledge, presences what is missing from the universal, or serves as the universal's structural counterpart. For every "I" to identify as "disabled" then, is to want to be one subject, or assume a universal subject through what would perennially be conceived as the least valuable social member/subject position.


Unknown said...

This is exactly it. To acknowledge disability as the limit case of the social prepares us to conceive disability as the "thin" or minimum condition on which to base a universal human rights. Tobin Siebers

Thom Donovan said...

I am very moved by your affirmation here Tobin...

Thank you for your brave and rigorous work.


Anonymous said...

[From my reply to Thom's original letter, now serving as an open letter:]

I'm most impressed by the way you use Heidegger to inform the "messianic kernel" of disability theory (the discourse in general, if not the book in particular). My first thought is that this provides a means of understanding the stakes of disability studies, the limit case of the social as a form of embodiment itself--complex embodiment, of course, and not just those forms that are "visible." I had my own way of articulating this in a rough precis of disability studies tenets and their inevitable swerve away from the rhetoric of "independent living" (as practically valuable as it is) toward interdependence, care-giving, dependent social relations as reality-forging conditions on par with textual conditions from a poetic standpoint. If you'll bear with me, I'd like to cite that, if that helps:

[In mainstream humanistic disability studies to date], representations of impairment are interpreted as symptomatic of how the category of disability is socially constructed, or how pathos is artificially extracted from routines of biological mutation and subsequently stigmatized. Dependency theory aims to go beyond this sort of hermeneutic determinism wherein ideological “norms” are retrofitted to more adequately resemble biological elasticity. Instead, it aims for a hermeneutic elasticity definitive of nothing less than the very continuum of human capability.

By "human capability," it is possible to read "instrumentality." This also, in recognition of aesthesis (figured as "writing" of what have you) as the gauge of a body politic, something any serious consideration of disability and poetics will have to affirm critically:

In life there is a sort of awkwardness, a delicacy of health, a frailty of constitution, a vital stammering which is someone’s charm. Charm is the source of life just as style is the source of writing. Life is not your history—those who have no charm have no life, it is as though they are dead. But the charm is not the person. It is what makes people be grasped as so many combinations and so many unique chances from which such a combination has been drawn. It is a throw of the dice which necessarily wins, since it affirms chance sufficiently instead of detaching or mutilating chance or reducing it to probabilities. Thus through each fragile combination a power of life is affirmed with a strength, an obstinacy, an unequalled persistence in the being. (Deleuze and Parnet, Dialogues 5)

It doesn't seem to me that Heidegger, consummate Modernist that he is, allots a language to address the ontology of disability as a lived experience. This is something I think you recognize--and I agree that a philosopher like Liz Grosz is one of the first who manages to provide a set of ontic categories that contribute to an understanding of "disability" that is not synonymous with "inability" and not reducible to "impairment." The latter would be fatal, and I mean that in the broadest sense. Impairment is a kind of non-instrumentality, but I fear that too ready a recuperation of Heideggerian categories will fail to raise the question of what Rosmarie Garland-Thompson calls "the normate": the cultural capital assumed by certain “bodily configurations” lent a certain visibility by the environment our long ableist moment constructs. For "certain" one must read the indefinite article, as Deleuze does in his final work on "a life," work which ought to inform the above, lest it impute configurations too definite to survive the post-ableist moment to come. How Heidegger will survive may be beyond me. Your use of the term interpellation is apt, I think, in precisely this regard. A life is always-already non-instrumental, just as a subject is always-already interpellated by ideology.

Ableist ideology as the ur-ideal of hegemonic power has been read by its primary theorist in disability studies, Lennard Davis, as the dialectical opposite of the secular messianic. It's at the point of ultimate inclusion of biological elasticity in the social field that identity ceases to become operable. Davis' notion of "Dismodernism" is one way of naming this moment, which, in his rendering, is initially liberatory, but then is ultimately perhaps just dismissive--someone like Michael Davidson would insist that identity itself can't be done away with, such as Davis asserts it should. (That imperative is occluded in Davis, and I read it as an alignment of the Marxist teleology operative in his early interests: identity whithers away, much like Marx felt the state would in the apotheosis of capitalism's long march.) Davis' post-identitarian approach has birthed what he calls "biocultures," which, in a recent issue of New Literary History as well as colloquia and conference panels, has replaced, if not just elaborated on, "disability studies" per se.

Built environments are not the only technologies central to disability discourse. Another crucial one is prosthesis. There is the basic distinction to make between built environments and prosetheses: the former is intended to be shared, while the latter intended to conform to and supplement an impairment. The former is metaphorical (if you will), since it relies upon a substitution that reflects, more often than not, the "normate." The latter is metonymic, since its value is (often literally) hinged on juxtapositions. In the first of reading of the Disability Studies in the Humanities Reading Group here in Chicago--a public affair held monthly since August of this year--we read Vivian Sobchack's essay "A Leg to Stand on: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality," which develops this sort of distinction through, among other things, a comparative reading of her lived experience ("When I put my leg on in the morning...") and the celebrity of Aimee Mullins, model, record-breaking athlete, and Matthew Barney collaborator. The essay might be a fair index of the suspicion disability studies scholars and activists hold in the spillover of referential fantasies and embodiment, when they, together, stake a singular claim on "materiality." And they tend to, which makes the turn to 60s/70s embodiment theory in performance and poetics of the conceptual, constructivist, and avant-garde seem so "obviously" important. I'm even more convinced that it is, looking back over Sobchack.

The limits of embodiment and the liminal conceptual space that theories of the "sublatern" have always usefully construed, these are analogous concerns. Or are they metonyms? I don't know. I do know that I agree with your reading of Amber's statement, entirely and with an effusiveness bordering on relief! In returning to this radical truth-value, perpetually perturbed by biological elasticity, we must also put into question the psyche as a metonymic aspect of physique. That is, we are wont to hold ideational structures culpable, but the "shift" back to "the body" as informed by disability cannot be made to undo the fundamental interdependency of subjects revealed as the logical as well as the practical conclusion of the social model. This has fueled my own arguments in favor of devising the category of "psycho-social disability" as the displaced center of dependency theory. And it reopens the very tricky case of "impairment." One needs a theory of impairment that can account for the calibrations of the social model, taken to this extreme, an extreme perhaps unmatched since radical modernism's euphoric implosion of typologies and pathologies through the most nominally "poetic" praxes (Stein or Williams, as my favored exemplars).

Thom Donovan said...

thanks for posting yr response Patrick. this exchange remains EXTREMELY vital for me, tho I have not been to advance my thinking/research since last fall all that much...