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Temporalities, monstrosities, and deformities, Medieval and Modern
I finished Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book about a month ago or so, and I meant to write an immediate blog post/review. But, as with so many things, time slipped away with me barely noticing it. It has a habit of doing this, time. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that I think Holsinger’s John Gower would be sympathetic to my angst-filled relationship to time. At the very end of his book, Holsinger writers (from the perspective of Gower):
Outside the customhouse I stood on the wharfage, watching the slow, careful movement of the Goose as it craned a pile of wool from the dock. On the decks of the trading vessels, workers toiled at the crates and barrels of goods brought to London from around the earth, from the looms of Lyon, the vineyards of Alsace and Tuscany, the olive groves of al-Andalus, and there, on the river’s edge of London, with the low bulk of Southwark rising before me, with the dense span of the bridge against the sky, I felt the unboundedness of it all. A history I would never fully understand had passed me by, these great machinations linking Florence, London, the marches of Aragon and Castile— and the narrow lanes of Southwark, and a dead woman on the moor.
Gower is thinking about the events of the story in which he had just played a part, refracted through the sights of the city that only fitfully acknowledged these events. On one hand, he’s watching the every day movements of London–goods moving about, people toiling, the steady movement of the water. On the other hand, there is something awesome at work, something overwhelming. Gower feels “the unboundedness of it all.” This unboundedness, of a time that sweeps us up and yet escapes our apprehension is there in the steady movement of the boats that bring goods from Tuscany and al-Andalus. Time is a river, and we don’t risk drowning in it because we’re already submerged.
Unsurprisingly, I loved this book. If I had to try to sell someone on this book, I’d say “Come for the prophecies, intrigue, and machinations of fourteenth-century England, but stay for the mundane, for the everyday, and for the restless heartbreak of its characters.” Not every character ends the novel as the victim of tragedy, but it’s there gnawing at the margins of everyone’s life nonetheless. These are characters who are peripatetic in their movements across, within, and outside of London, but that’s nothing compared to the unboundedness of their inner worlds. Greenblatt be damned.
Perhaps the most frustrating word for medievalists in the past few years is “swerve,” taken from the title of Greenblatt’s book. I won’t rehearse the argument here, except to say that Greenblatt’s (by now) repetitive thesis imagines history as a movement from an abjected, static, stultifying Middle Ages to a Modernity where we are fully realized welves. Miraculously, for Greenblatt, we swerved out of the darkness and into the light. One of the most intriguing parts of Holsinger’s book, then, is his reclamation of the term “swerve” in the body and character of Eleanor/Edgar Rykener:
Swerver. And that’s what I am, like it or not. A man in body, a woman in soul. One day a he, the next a she, a stiff cock for some, a tight arse for others. Provided they could pay, Eleanor would do all and be all for her loyal jakes, and she had plenty who liked taking it and giving it every which way. Sometimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as both at once, though that could get complicated. Why, just last week there was this gongfarmer, big-muscled and hairy as you could like, but get him in the stall and he starts to–
Eleanor is, for me, the most compelling character in the book. Her story is both extraordinary and yet so painfully ordinary. She lives a life that many would choose to ignore (even when enjoying its fruits) and her story intersects repeatedly with the goings-on of the elite and the powerful, but still hers is (at its center) a story of someone trying to save a sibling from an abusive situation. In Holsinger’s hands, “swerved” becomes a term of pathos, but also a sign of our wounded identity–it’s first an insult hurled at Eleanor/Edgar, but it is also a term that captures her mobile and flexible identity, and I would suggest it points to a similar existential state for so many others. Gower and the Fonteyn sisters might not be transvestites, but their lives are similarly mobile, unbounded, and at times alarmingly unmoored–they reside in so many places but find themselves not quite at home all too often.
At the very end of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Gower buys a pigeon pie, finds it to be rotten, and he slips on a loose paving stone. These are comic and absurd details, intrusions of the everyday in the face of the epic sweep of history. More to the point, though, these intrusions, these haptic happenstances are everything:
We live in an immense world, whole universes of taste and touch and scent, of voices commingling in the light, and dying away with the common dread that stands at every man’s door. Yet we perceive and remember this world only as it creates those single fragments of experience: moments of everyday kindness, or self-sacrificing love, or unthinkable brutality. I angled my face to the sun and blinked away a spot, then another, these dark blemishes floating in my sight, mottling my vision, more of them by the day.
I’m looking forward to the sequels — there is a lot more plot that seems looming, and I love the intricacies of such stories. But mostly, I want to stumble along with Gower and Eleanor a little more.
“De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability”
50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 14-17 2015.
Sponsored by MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application)
It has been famously argued that there was no conception in the Middle Ages of the disabled as it would accord with modern notions of embodied difference. In looking for figures of the disabled and the deformed, scholars in medieval disability studies have often looked to monstrosity as an overlapping, if not entirely identical category. We are looking for papers that address the intersection of monstrosity and disability in provocative and searching ways. We especially encourage papers that do not simply collapse these two categories but rather look to interrogate the convergence and divergence of the monstrous and the impaired. What is the effect of reading monsters as disabled and the disabled as monstrous? How does the coupling of these two Othered figures obscure important features? How does reading them together illuminate the social and cultural processes by which difference is constructed? We invite papers from all disciplines and national traditions.
Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words together with a completed Participant Information Form (available here: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/) to session organizer Richard Godden (email@example.com) or Asa Simon Mittman (firstname.lastname@example.org) by September 15. Please include your name, title, and affiliation on the abstract itself. All abstracts not accepted for the session will be forwarded to Congress administrators for consideration in general sessions, as per Congress regulations.
Check it out people.
Originally posted on The Grammar Rabble:
The Grammar Rabble is sponsoring a roundtable session at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies. This session is a follow-up to last year’s “#;()@?”:—*!…” roundtable (which had been sponsored by the BABEL Working Group). We are seeking proposals.
Punctuation marks infiltrate and inform our everyday experiences, but they have their own histories as well. They structure, relate, balance, and invoke; they collide, confuse, limit, and terminate. This roundtable, sponsored by the Grammar Rabble, takes punctuation and other typographical marks as the starting point for eclectic and inventive readings/meditations on Medieval Studies. We invite short presentations on any character–modern or archaic, Western or non-Western—and we are particularly interested in modes and marks of punctuation that are not immediately recognizable to modern eyes, including arrows, manicles, and neumes (and other musical notations). This session will continue to expand our sense of what punctuation…
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I expect to blog further about Allan Mitchell’s excellent Becoming Human in the near future. For now, I’m tagging this as a “Reading Quote” (clunky, I know). I want to use this space sometimes to transcribe provocative bits of reading I come across as I work on various projects.
I’m particularly struck, so far, by his attention to the dependencies and contingencies inherent to gestation and infancy. We would seem to be born in need of, or enabled for, various prostheses:
Supplementation and mutual dependency go to the heart of the matter of the child, as implied not just in animal husbandry and tool making but also in how humans must learn to walk and talk from the beginning. We may relate such biosocial becomings to Derrida’s treatments of innate insufficiency: here the newborn, requiring the supplements and supports of culture and language, expresses a disability that is a “natural weakness,” leading Derrida to ask, “How is a child possible in general?” Only with an apparatus of culture and technical prostheses does one have a future in human society, and we can specify that it is only thanks to so many nonhuman agencies, instruments, media, and other matters that one can have a life at all. We are natural-born cyborgs. A human neonate ultimately appears to be less like an animal than a derelict and derivative human, which is liable to seem a humiliating, strange sort of condition. One must be licked into shape. (28)
As Mitchell goes on to discuss, there is something “inhumanizing” and “dehumanizing” (33) at the heart of humanity, at least in its origins. We are born dependent, and perhaps continue to be. I think this book (in my reading so far) has a lot to contribute to disability studies.
A lot to chew on here. If you aren’t already, you should be reading this book. If you aren’t convinced yet, read Jeffrey Cohen’s short review.
Originally posted on EXM:
[This post is one of a pair of conference reflections. Also see "On Affiliation and Fragility: SAA 2014" by Elise Lonich Ryan.]
The 49th International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo has now been over for a few weeks, but I still very much feel myself caught up in its wake. It was an exhausting and exhilarating few days, but that could be said for any given Kalamazoo. This one, however, seemed very different to me. For one, I was more involved than I’ve ever been. I gave a roundtable and a paper presentation, and I organized a panel. I also attended two excellent sessions put together by MEARCSTAPA and also a session on the convergence of Postcolonial and Disability Studies. Aside from my own hyper-involvement, there was a distinct feeling of newness right from the start.
I arrived Wednesday evening after a two-day drive from New Orleans. Like all…
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(Note: I am also cross posting this at Modern Medieval.)
Like many people I know, I’ve been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven’t been reading articles, I’ve been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I’m certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It’s in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.
This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf. I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme “The Monstrous Middle Ages.” A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:
A Lord seems to have a wonderful life — status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband’s clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.
Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we’ve talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: “Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?” When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady’s being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.
Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn’t the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn’t she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten? We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.
Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I’m not always unsettled by “Bisclavret.” I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn’t ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn’t thought too much about before was the lady’s first words:
“My lord,” she said, “my friend, my dear,
There’s just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare–
But I’m afraid that you’ll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me” (From Judith Shoaf’s translation)
Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, “more than anything,” that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger. Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.
After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France’s “Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in. I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value. Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I’m not saying that last Friday’s act of violence should be described as medieval. I’m saying that “Bisclavret” is all too modern.
Two posts in one day! The time-vortex must be all wobbly. Anyway, here’s my contribution to Josh Eyler’s “Disability Studies and the Digital Humanities (A Roundtable)”:
I want to begin this short presentation with a note of annoyance. For a little while now, every few weeks or so one of my friends posts an article on Facebook about a study concerning student note-taking. You know the one. Studies have confirmed, it would seem, that the pen has slain the keyboard. One such article from www.sciencenews.org begins “When it comes to taking notes, the old-fashioned way might be best.” I will come back to this old-fashionedness in a moment. The article then goes on to say “People taking notes on laptops have a shallower grasp of a subject than people writing with their hands, and not just because laptops distract users with other activities such as web surfing, the new study suggests.” I am not a scientist, so I am not going to challenge the ultimate findings of this recent study. Nor do I dispute it. What has me so irritated, though, is the often triumphant (explicit or implicit) attitude on display when people post such articles. There is often a sense of relief, or of “I told you so.” I understand the nostalgia people feel for physical books and for pen and paper. There is enormous pleasure to be had in the tactile engagement with such storehouses of knowledge. The only problem, however, is that I am often excluded from such pleasures. A book sitting on my shelf in my office might as well be a continent anyway.
The short articles that I often see posted on the subject focus on the superiority of old-fashioned technologies versus newer digital tools. However, and unsurprisingly, looking at the actual study that spawned these articles tells a slightly different tale. In the most recent issue of Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, in an article called “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard,” conclude that students taking notes longhand do better in terms of knowledge retention than their laptop using peers, even when the distracting qualities of web surfing and other forms of multitasking are controlled for. The difference, perhaps counterintuitively, is that laptop users can record information faster. Because of this, they tend to transcribe almost verbatim what they hear, and this becomes a mindless task. Longhand notetakers, on the other hand, must be selective, and therefore end up processing information better. As Mueller and Oppenheimer state at the close of their article, “Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.”
Now, I must admit to being somewhat unfair at the start of this presentation. Not everyone who recently posted this article, or variations of it, were doing so in the hopes of validating their own technological preferences. (This is especially true of anyone in the room who I am friends with on some platform or another.) And, I should note that the initial link that I began discussing does note, albeit at the very end of the article, that the issue is how information is processed and not the actual tool being used. What I take issue with is the title of the original article (“The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard”) and the link’s reference to “old-fashioned.” The real heft of the original study focuses on information processing, but the advertising focuses on a binary between new and old, between the physical and the digital.
In thinking about note taking, and the role of digital tools in this activity, I am not strictly speaking yet about digital humanities. Nor do I want to necessarily get into the debate of what exactly the digital humanities constitutes. Briefly, I prefer to think of digital humanities as a landscape without boundaries. I borrow the term landscape from Patrik Svensson, who charted five modes of engagement for digital humanities: “as a tool, an object of study, an exploratory laboratory, an expressive medium and an activist venue.”* Of these, I am most interested in digital humanities as an expressive medium, but more to the point, I’m interested in the ways that the digital enables freer flows of information, reconstituting and reconceptualizing what we think of as knowledge and authorship in the process. When someone suggests that the “old-fashioned” is best, they are not only professing a preference for physical book over a Kindle or ipad, but they are also revealing an anxiety about or suspicion toward the unavoidable ramifications of the digitization of knowledge.
This embrace of the “old-fashioned” is certainly not a recent trend, and maybe because I recently taught this text, this all reminds me powerfully of the Egyptian myth in Plato’s Phaedrus. Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the story where one of the Egyptian gods brings his great invention, that of writing, to the King. How crestfallen the inventor must have been when the King, in a sagely and somewhat patronizing tone, tells him that the discovery of writing is nothing more than an aide to forgetting. The old ways are, in fact, best. Never mind that this critique of writing is occurring in a dialogue written by Plato, and that without this dialogue we would likely not know about this exchange. This encounter between past and present, and between two radically different seeming technologies is playing out again, and again. To find our modern-day Phaedrus we might look no further than a recent article in The New Republic by Adam Kirsch, called “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” Never mind that I read this piece because it is posted to the magazine’s website.
After surveying and critiquing (sometimes justifiably) the triumphant tone that often accompanies Digital Humanities, Kirsch offers the following appraisal in his next-to-last paragraph: “The best thing that the humanities could do at this moment, then, is not to embrace the momentum of the digital, the tech tsunami, but to resist it and to critique it. This is not Luddism; it is intellectual responsibility. Is it actually true that reading online is an adequate substitute for reading on paper? If not, perhaps we should not be concentrating on digitizing our books but on preserving and circulating them more effectively. Are images able to do the work of a complex discourse? If not, and reasoning is irreducibly linguistic, then it would be a grave mistake to move writing away from the center of a humanities education.” There are many things going on here for Kirsch. One is certainly a nostalgic embrace of the old-fashioned, veiled in the trappings of “intellectual responsibility.” More troubling to me, however, is the insistent refusal to engage with questions of accessibility. We can curate books and circulate them more, but does that always help the physically disabled? And, aside from the alarmist notion that writing is going to be removed from the humanities curriculum, what about the fact that multimodal objects may be a great help to some students who process information differently, and therefore feel excluded by linguistic only expression. Within his nostalgic move he also expresses a normate position, thinking that we all learn, process, and engage the world in the same way. What is good for Kirsch is good, apparently, for the rest of us.
As a corrective to the retreat to the “old-fashioned” Humanities, I look to George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,” where he observes that “Digital knowledge tools that assume everyone approaches information with the same abilities and using the same methods risk excluding a large percentage of people. In fact, such tools actually do the work of disabling people by preventing them from using digital resources altogether.” He then goes on to argue that “We must broaden our understanding of the ways in which people use digital resources” (Williams). I would extend his conclusions here to say that we should not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way. To do so, as Kirsch does, excludes so many and enforces an expectation of normalcy. What I would like to call for is a dismodern Humanities. I take the phrase “dismodern” from Lennard Davis, who argues (in his book Bending Over Backwards) that we are all incomplete or disabled: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls of manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace” (30). We are not self-sovereign, in either our minds or our bodies. We are all interdependent. One of the many reasons that I find this notion of dismodernism so compelling, and what I find generally provocative about Disability Studies, is that it carries with it an imperative to engage. We must engage with the world, with our neighbors, with the people next to us, with the technologies at hand and with the information available. Only in doing so, by engaging, can we become complete.
The self-satisfaction of retreating from the Digital signals not engagement, but a refusal. It closes off knowledge, and despite the nod towards greater circulation, the networks become difficult to navigate. I am certainly not suggesting that we need to do away with books, or that we need turn the Humanities into something abject, in favor of the Digital. Instead, I am just growing weary of the binary between past and present, new and old, normal and different. To recast this binary thinking, I will take one more cue from Davis. He rather famously argued that handicap parking is not a subset of regular parking, but rather the other way around. Regular parking is a subset of handicap parking. With this in mind, I want to argue that all issues of access in terms of information and the Humanities are a subset of issues of disability access. Open Access and net neutrality are not separate issues from universal design; rather, in the mode of a dismodern Humanities, these concerns and defining values of DH are a subset of the call for universal access.
*Patrick Svensson, “The Landscape of the Digital Humanities,” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 4.1 (2010)
After returning from Kalamazoo and resurfacing from final grading, my head is starting to clear enough to put up some blog posts. What follows is the final paragraph to my paper called “Prosthetic Neighbors: Enabling Community in the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” In this paper, I endeavored to read Ragnelle alongside two different theoretical considerations: the political theology of the Neighbor and some recent work in Disability Studies. I’m trying to work out some of the ways the Neighbor and Disability might complement each other. This will be my primary summer project, so expect more here and on Modern Medieval.
In closing this essay, I want to briefly consider Lennard Davis’s recent book, The End of Normal, where he revisits the notion of dismodernism. He reviews criticisms of his challenge to a disabled identity, and he updates his work in light of his encounter with both critics and other philosophers, mostly notably for my purposes, Giorgio Agamben. Davis observes that “the primary exclusion that creates the state is bare life that also could be defined as barely human… The state historically has been founded on the exclusion of the severely disabled” (29). He goes on to argue that “if I had read Agamben ten years ago, I might have said that dismodernism advocates the defining of the posthuman by the inclusion of the abject, bare life, the disabled– in other words, including the imperfect, the interdependent, the nonideal in the very sphere of the polis, the agora, and so on.” For Davis, the exclusion of the bare life of the severely disabled enables the inclusion that communities are formed on. I might suggest that the loathly lady allows for the exclusion of the bare life of her extreme deformity, thus bringing forth the bonds of community based on inclusion, in this case marriage. However, what I really think that Davis needed here is not so much Agamben’s state of exception, but rather he should look to the political theology of the neighbor. For me, dismodernism makes explicit some of the ways in which the neighbor constitutes the social. As Reinhard suggests through a reading of Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, “To destroy the relation of the neighbor is to eliminate the breathing space that keeps the subject in proper relationship to the Other, neither too close nor too far, but in proximity, the ‘nearness’ that neighboring entails.” [In reading disability through Agamben, Davis also makes exceptional the subject-position of the disability, which I would suggest blunts the force of his original conception of dismodernism.] Before the entrance of the neighbor, Arthur exists in an atemporal world, one of constant feasts and hunting, but also one where the disenfranchised is simply absent, and history seems nonexistent. The incursion of the stranger into the Arthurian world may bring tragedy in the end, but it also forces Arthur to confront his neighbors, and to attempt to redress political wrongs. The neighbor-encounters in the poem embody what Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick in their joint essay “Bodies Together: Touch, Ethics and Disability” (2002) would call a “becoming-in-the-world-with-others,” an openness of two bodies to alternate modes of being, and to a futurity promised but not yet apprehended (62). To fully understand neighbor-love, I argue, it must be understood in the eventfulness of an encounter that brings two or more bodies together, not into a simple joining but rather an interdependent openness to difference, and an embrace of a more just futurity.
A few choice quotes from Davis about Dismodernism as ethics (and not just as an identity category):
This is a very different notion from subjectivity organized around wounded identities; rather, all humans are seen as wounded. Wounds are not the result of oppression, but rather the other way around. Protections are not inherent, endowed by the creator, but created by society at large and administered to all. The idea of a protected class in law now becomes less necessary since the protections offered to that class are offered to all. (p. 30)
Here, Davis is (in part) responding to some critiques of the ADA, where it can seem that almost anyone can qualifying as part of a protected class. He goes on to discuss the ethical importance of incompleteness:
The dismodernist subject is in fact disabled, only completed by technology and by interventions. Rather than the idea of the complete, independent subject, endowed with rights (which are in actuality conferred by privilege), the dismodernist subject sees that metanarratives are only “socially created” and accepts them as that, gaining help and relying on legislation, law, and technology. It acknowledges the social and technological to arrive at functionality. As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls of manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace. The fracturing of identities based on somatic markers will eventually be seen as a device to distract us from the unity of new ways of regarding humans and their bodies to further social justice and freedom.
What I find most significant is not the possible claim that we are all disabled (though we all do move in and out of varying forms of disability throughout life), but that we are incomplete. The dismodern subject position allows us to think about this ethics of incompleteness, how laws and advocacy are not just supplements, but are necessary.
As I wrote in my last piece, I have always been uncomfortable with a notion of disability culture, but I do identify with this dismodern ethics, that we are all in need of completion. The rugged individual, alone, self-sustaining and self-constituting, is an attractive fantasy. But it’s only that.
I am quite intrigued by the idea of “arriving at functionality,” that it is possibly a temporary and tenuous state. Are we ever able? Or just enabled in certain situations and for certain durations of time?
As a citizen, who also happens to be disabled, I have an abiding concern about the ethical questions of a dismodernist subject position. But in my work as an academic medievalist, I am also concerned with some implications of these ethical questions for the study of literature. (I do not wish to rigid line of separation between ethics/politics/advocacy and academic work–I see reading and scholarship as an ethical, and often public act.) Specifically, I want to continue to think about the problems of time from a disabled perspective, and especially from a dismodernist one. In thinking about crip or dismodern temporalities, I am quite indebted to articulations of queer time. Look for a blog post on this subject soon.
Lennard Davis, in Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions, asserts the near impossibility of describing a single, intelligible, fixed identity for People with Disabilities. How can we develop a stable definition that could include the wide range of congenital and acquired impairments, both physical and mental? As a part of his general interrogation and critique of any simple category of identity, Davis proposes the idea of dismodernism. He argues that “The dismodern era ushers in the concept that difference is what all of us have in common” (26). This also (to me) sounds quite similar to an argument that Patricia MacCormack makes in her essay “Posthuman Teratology”: “The posthuman does not therefore depose the human, nor come after it, but allows access to and celebrates the excesses, conundrums, jubilant failures, and disruptive events which are already inherent in any possibility of contemplation” (295).
I must admit to being very sympathetic to Davis’s notion of dismodernism. As someone with a physical disability that requires the full-time use of a wheelchair, I have become quite used to the idea of being an advocate for myself, whether I wished to be one or not. In fact, it would be fair to say that I am often compelled to be an advocate. My default position is often to work around the obstacles that are there to be navigated as opposed to encouraging the removal of barriers. (I am quite aware that this is not always the healthiest position to take.) Yet while I have become increasingly comfortable with being an advocate, what I have yet to become comfortable with is the idea that I belong to a larger social group with a coherent identity: the disabled. This is not to say that I don’t feel occasional identification with or empathy for people who struggle with similar or even incredibly different impairments as I have.
It is just that I’ve never felt a true sense of shared identity with other people with disabilities (based on disability), nor have I understood the idea of disability culture. When I make a statement like that, I do not wish for anyone to understand by it any sort of antagonism. This is a very personal reflection, and as with any such reflection, there is a longer history there than what I can get into right now. I will say that as an adolescent, I used to attend a summer camp every year that caters specifically to people with disabilities. It was a wonderful place, and a wonderful experience, but I always felt that the only thing I really had in common with the other campers was the simple fact that I, like them, would be perceived as deviating from some idealized version of normal. That was it. My closest group of friends from this camp included someone with cerebral palsy, someone who is legally blind, and three of us who had a type of Muscular Dystrophy and were therefore in wheelchairs. (Two of us had a type of MD that is fatal in one’s adolescence or twenties; I know for sure that one passed away, and I can only assume that the other has also passed but I have lost contact with him.) Our group also included several volunteers around our own age, who would be, according to external observation, considered able-bodied. We were drawn together by temperament, and not by a shared experience of disability. I have no true sense of disability identity (except, of course, when I do).
20 years or more later, I now realize that we all had a range of types of disabilities and deficiencies and dependencies that we were all struggling with. But that is the more mature revelation I’ve come to. As a college student and later as a graduate student, I often found myself allergic to the idea of writing about my disability in any sustained way. It was not until after I completed my PhD that I decided to write an essay that dealt with my disability. In the last few years, however, I began to think more and more of the ways in which my disability affects the way I see the world. I would still not call it my major critical concern, but I’m no longer quite as allergic as I used to be. With all of this as a bit of a lengthy preamble, I want to offer some brief thoughts on the following quote from Davis:
In a dismodernist mode, the ideal is not a hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject, but aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence (30).
For most of my life, those around me have encouraged me to seek after autonomy and independence (certainly laudable goals), but I’ve always felt an inescapable sense of dependency and incompleteness. Most importantly, I’ve always valued (and perhaps needed) interdependence. It is for this reason that I gravitate towards the social, toward making connections, towards collaboration. Yes, I enjoy the solitary work of being a scholar, but sometimes I think I’d be most happy teaching and advising, engaging with others, being a part of a group. Until recently I never quite had the vocabulary to describe that distinction. What’s even more important, and most attractive to me, is that Davis wishes to turn this into an ethics, and not just a description of an identity category. But I’ll get into that at another time.
(I do want to note that I am still new to the field of DS, and Davis wrote this in 2002, so there could much new thinking about this. I fully acknowledge any sloppy thinking due to newness. I am just beginning to work through these ideas.)