November 2007

alettine3.jpgCTUALLY, this post isn’t going to be so much about Descartes as about the Cartesian dualism. I mentioned earlier that I gave a paper at a seminar on Critical Disability Studies a couple of weeks ago, and that I was anxious about it primarily because the audience was made up of ‘community’ people as well as academic types. It was a difficult audience, and I’m willling, absolutely, to grant that I’m still needing work on the turning-theory-into-an-interesting-paper. Hell, I don’t usually get a whole lot of feedback except ‘mmm… it was very theoretical.’ But there’s something else going on, too, something which was indicated to me by the kinds of responses I got. They drew my attention really strongly to how very difficult it is to shake people’s trust in the Cartesian dualism.

Disability studies has historically primarily shifted all suffering over to the realm of the disabling culture. Thus suffering was understood as something caused from outside. In fact, it became, as one of the speakers observed, almost heresy to suggest that people really did suffer, as if talking about suffering and disability took up uncritically the assumption that mainstream culture made about disability: always tragic, everywhere a horror, a thing to always and everywhere be avoided, a space that could offer nothing.

Of course, this discursive construction of disability is extraordinarily powerful; it’s unsurprising that rights-based activists set about denying it. But eventually someone pointed out that the Cartesian dualism between mind and body was quite happily alive and well in social constructionism, and started to ask questions. What I found in presenting, though, is that the moment you refer to the body, it’s regularly construed as a return to the fundamental truth of the distinction between mind and body. The body becomes, once again, the turgid weight holding back the person, where of course the person is understood as fundamentally their mind (after all, given the construction of disability as lack, it would be wrong, wouldn’t it, to attribute that lack to the person themselves?) And so when I spoke about suffering and the body, I was understood at least by some as advocating a return to, firstly, acknowledging that people with disabilities may well suffer, and secondly, that if and when they do, it’s not simply about the disabling culture in which they live, it’s all about their bodies….

Except that that really wasn’t my argument. I was arguing that suffering, real, ‘physical’ suffering, is bound up with the cultural construction of bodies. But even this kind of phrase, in the context of the naturalisation of bodies, is regularly understood as ‘first, we have body, natural, biological; second, we overlay it with a cultural interpretation,’ rather than what I actually mean, which is that even the notion of the ‘body’ as it’s used in that sentence is already a cultural construction, along with the ‘natural,’ not to mention the ‘biological’. The determined belief in an underlying natural substrate of the body is so invested with what Foucault calls truth-effects that it’s terribly difficult to counter. We are so accustomed to taking the ways that we experience ourselves and our bodies as fundamentally natural, precisely because they are marked and reinforced as such by so much that we do and say and know and believe… When we get sick, we’re all too accustomed to feeling that the body, not me, is sick; the body prevents me from what I want to be doing. Of course, we forget in the midst of all of this that it is primarily because I am accustomed to the limitations of my bodily being that this feeling isn’t constant. I don’t hold the fact that I can’t fly against my body. Or, perhaps more fairly, if I have to run further than usual, or need to be up at 6 am and going full bore til 10 pm and so on, I might run up against these kinds of limitations. But in those circumstances, we tend not to experience these limitations as somehow wrong, because, I want to suggest, we’ve developed an entire way of being in the world around them, in contrast to the wrongness we’re all too happy to attribute to the flu. What comes to be experienced as the body preventing me from doing what I want to do, then, is fairly specific, and it’s bound up with bodies and how we know them.

But there is still this deep-seated intuition that bodies are to blame. Indeed, the phrase ‘people with disabilities’ attempts to create an equivalence between all people: we are all the same kinds of subject, but some have this extra, inessential attribute we call ‘disability’.

It’s complicated to explain that when I say ’embodied subject’ I mean that mind and body are just not two separate things, partly because it appears so contrary to the majority’s experience of themselves, and partly because I’ve been working for so long with this kind of theory, and I’ve got so much more to argue for than simply contra-Cartesian-split. But of course, when I deliver a paper, this means that any later point I make is often, though not always, slotted back into the habitual ways of being in the world that my audience experiences as the most fundamental, most own-most truth they have: their experience of themselves as body separate from mind. Indeed, the ungraspability of an anti-Cartesian position can be seen in the instinctive response to positions such as that Zarathustra declaimed so long ago, ‘Body I am entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.’ (Nietzsche 1972: 136) It becomes almost incomprehensible, until it comes to inform your habits. When I start to claim that thoughts and emotions and our most rational moments are all still embodied, still the result of a body, I don’t doubt it feels wrong to my audience. Which of course is most of my point.


Plato sez that those who use writing to represent their thoughts will:

cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources. What you have discovered [in writing] is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. (Phaedrus; 275)

A receipt. Apart from recalling the mug of the tax woman in Life, which says ‘you are what you receipt,’ this seems to me to evoke an intriguing kind of exchange relation, a giving over of thought to the ether, marked only by the receipt of the writing. Upon presentation of this receipt, you may be given what was, apparently, already purely yours back to you. Memory is thus presented as authentic, self-sufficient and almost a way of investing the thought within oneself rather than in an elsewhere place. The self-contained subject must not permit thought to pass to elsewhere, and certainly must not allow the thought to circulate to another, much less another inanimate object—pen, paper, ink upon page, pixels on screen—before returning for it will never be the sameand nor will you.

Never let there be another to show you who you are, to let you be who you are; heaven forbid. And if there is such another, destroy him, destroy her, burn the paper, smash the liquid crystal, until there is nothing but you left, you and a lonely, isolated knowledge. As if no other form of relation were ever possible…!

So it looks like I’m not alone in the dreaming of more interesting and more just futures…! I’ll admit that I screamed ‘Fuck off!’ at the TV a lot tonight as Brough made his I’m-such-a-statesman-and-thinking-only-of-the-indigenous-population speech, Costello did his and-I-just-probably-lost-my-chance-at-leadership sad carry-on, and Howard took ‘FULL responsibility.’ (Yes dear, we know it’s your fault, that’s why people voted you the fuck out, you know?) And I spent much of the rest of the night unrelentingly gleeful and copying Maxine McKew’s split-face grin and happy-dance arm-wave: cheering when Rudd put indigenous Australians first, acknowledged the unions, when Gillard grinned and grinned and played it sweetly calm and cool, and when I watched how few slivers of pie were coloured blue. I think there were only a couple of seats that had Liberal swings.

I mean really, as a dear friend of mine pointed out, Howard called his wife ‘cement’ and Rudd called Therese ‘darling.’ [Thanks nix; that’ll teach me to post drunk.] I think that pretty much says it all.

But perhaps most importantly of all, I drank to the possibility of new spaces, of new conversations, of new ways of doing politics. I don’t expect much, but I do hope.

And I raise a glass with all and sundry celebrating tonight! You kids rock.

NOT an hour ago, I cast my vote in the Australian election. Every election that I’ve voted in thus far in my life has returned a Liberal government to power. That is incredibly depressing; especially the last election which saw the Senate handed over as well as the House of Reps. Voting is a very strange thing, I think. I vote, even though I know that my area is such a Labor stronghold that Liberals don’t even bother putting up candidate posters (which, actually, does wonders for my blood pressure…) and my tiny Green protest-style vote counts for naught at all. I vote, even though I know that the best I can hope for is a Labor party that really can no longer be considered left-wing except in contrast to the extremes of the right-wing party. I vote, even though the whole system feels entirely flawed. I don’t have enough polisci background to be able to explain how and why, exactly, the formal system is, in fact, flawed. But there are some obvious problems: the incredibly coercive system within which political debate takes place (seriously, when the Liberal party can label the Labor party ‘extremists’ on television and not simply be laughed out of town, how can we think otherwise?); the bizarre loophole that enables Liberal advertising to be passed off as government information ads; the extraordinarily right-wing media (apart from our at least vaguely left-leaning/’balanced’ on-line sources [blows kisses to Larvatus Prodeo, Crikey! and Club Troppo]); and the very real absence of political literacy in this country, which tends to lead to apathy, alienation and a serious inability to a) remember political lies and b) recognise the manufacture and manipulation of fear and c) resist the individualising techniques of political appeals.

I was wondering, as I wandered down the street this morning, whether I see voting as part of what feminist and queer and critical race theory have called ‘strategy.’ The non-revolutionary (not in the sense of not-changing so much as in the sense of not really believing that there will be a moment in which all will be tossed into the air and come down the way we imagine it to) kinds of ways of engaging with the existing social order in ways which are recognisable within its limits, whilst at the same time pressing back against those limits. However much I think that Labor is really a probably-not-even-the-lesser of two evils (as Az so succinctly points out), there is still something significant (is there? I sound way more sure than I am!) about the possibility of a Labor government. I suspect that part of my concern is discursive: the increasingly right-wing rhetoric of the Liberal government has reconfigured the political spectrum so that left-wing is no longer really left at all. A left-wing government, even if in name only, has the possibility of adjusting the spectrum again, perhaps making more tenable the holding of left-wing positions in public. Perhaps? Making it more difficult to label left-wing positions as ‘extreme’, or at least so watering down that label that it’s not longer the end of an argument? Perhaps I am too hopeful, but it’s easier to be optimistic if I don’t see this election as an end in itself, but rather something that has this kind of potential for a future… A little like the appeal to essentialism called strategic, which has permitted some of the feminist, queer and critical race politics to engage with a here-and-now on the way to the future. This appeal, however, is pretty problematic in my view, primarily because it reiterates the terms by which injustice is perpetuated. And so the question remains….

And what actually makes me hopeful about the way that this election will, if it follows the polls, come out, is that it would demonstrate something about the majority of Australians. This same majority which believed the ludicrous individualistic logic of John Howard’s hideous promise of lower interest rates, would appear to be saying ‘No longer will we believe that the economy makes the world go round.’ It’s nothing huge, really, and it’s frustrating in its conservatism, but it is something that makes a different kind of politics seem possible. But again, I suspect too much optimism on my part… Nonetheless, there was a bizarre sense of participating in something much larger when I headed to the local primary school today, a sense which challenges the individualism of the Liberal government’s rhetoric, at least potentially…

Either way, tonight I will drink, hopefully in celebration, but otherwise to drown some fairly large sorrows, among friends. And dreaming of futures way more interesting and just than any party can really offer…!

yuh-huh. That’d be me. My poor long-suffering blog! My life is crazy at the mo: between last week’s 1) annual review (emotionally trying), 2) postgrad conference at which paper was given (also emotionally trying, but eased a little by being completely exhausted and also hopped up on caffeine), 3) mixed-audience seminar at which paper was also given (so beyond being emotionally tried I was vague and smiley with all :-)), and of course, let us not forget 4) Friday’s pick-up of 40 3000 word assignments… well, let’s just say swamped. And of course, there’s 5) the marking of said assignments, 6) the writing of a paper for CSAA (anyone going? Drop me a line! contact form’s just up there, see it, to your right?), 7) the writing of a paper for ACRAWSA (ditto!) and of course 8 ) getting back to that damn thesis thing and finishing the final (! no, really: !!) chapter. And then of course the amorphous mass of editing, adding, cutting, bibliographing and so on that will go on and on and on until… it stops. (Probably, unfortunately, though I continue to cross fingers against it, some time after the money does. Gulp!)

So yes, craziness, basically. But in the name of nawty kittehs, I’m going to cheat and have e. e. cummings do my work for me (forgive the crapola of wordpress trying to do poetical editing):

Sonnet VII

I like my body when it is with your
body.      It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.       i like what it does,
i like its hows.       i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss,       i like kissing this and that of you,
i like,slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric fur,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new

Quite a thing for a lover to whisper to you in the dark, n’est-ce pas?

i‘M currently writing a paper for a seminar about disability. Actually I’ve currently got four papers on the go – they’re all for presentation, but it’s making my life a tad hectic. This chapter also desperately needs to be finished; I’ve promised myself the end of this month as an absolute, absolute dead end kind of deadline, but we’ll see how it goes. Interestingly, writing a thesis seems to be all about the flexing of deadlines; it’s rather disconcerting!

Anyhow, this seminar has the loosest of titles: something about ‘beyond the social model,’ or ‘in critique of the social model.’ It’s proving a bit difficult to write for: it’s going to be a fairly mixed audience, and I tend toward the theoretical, even for my own discipline. But it’s not just this: my work is on suffering, and suffering, as Wendy Brown has shown, is something that people tend to be pretty invested in, particularly when they’re working in political spheres to remedy the injustices that cause the suffering in the first place. The risk, which would mostly arise from the assumption that I’m much closer to the social model of disability than I actually am, is that I may be uncharitably understood as suggesting that suffering a) doesn’t exist; b) is so utterly contingent as to make the sufferer responsible for their own suffering; or c) that I am equating forms of suffering which are quite clearly very different. I am suggesting none of these things, but suffering playing the role it does, I’m headed into a little anxious about it. So I thought I’d explain a bit of my thoughts on this matter here, and see if practicing writing about these issues might help. Also, my slow upkeep on this blog is making me feel bad, even as I miss it!

The social model of disability can be understood—a little shabbily, but just for now—as what social constructionism did when it came head-to-head with the idea of disability. Just like with the sex/gender distinction that it instituted in relation to feminism, disability was divided into the impairment/disability paradigm. The impairment, it was suggested, is neutral, even natural, whilst society disables those who are impaired. I have a number of issues with this perspective, however much sympathy I have for its intentions, beginning with the problematic conception of the individual subject and what we might loosely call ‘the social,’ and the relationship between them.

The subject in this model is Cartesian; this is one of the key points of social constructionism, and the reason that Moira Gatens could rip the sex/gender distinction to shreds in 1986 (though she likely wasn’t alone, and perhaps wasn’t the first. I just like this book a lot.) It presumes that the body is predominantly, if not entirely, a blank slate. Sure men and women might have different physical sexes, it was suggested; this has nothing at all to do with whether they act feminine or masculine. Similarly, the social model of disability suggests that impairments are neutral but naturally occurring. The issue here, of course, is that it is only in and through the social that we can conceive of two sexes, and only in and through the social that ideas like ‘impaired’ and ‘unimpaired’ make sense. It is, in the end, the social investment in the body—what Judith Butler called the ‘materialisation of’ the body—which produces bodies male, female, intersex, impaired, unimpaired, normal and abnormal. Indeed, as Gatens points out in that 1986 essay, it is ludicrous to suppose that masculinity is socially read in the same way whether it is lived out by a male body or a female body. The body has a significant role to play in the formation of the subject; but it is not in and through providing the biological essence from which the subject will arise, and it is not just in how we understand the body (for that would reinstitute the Cartesian dualism we’re claiming is problematic), but how we experience it.

But there’s something else going on in social constructionism which is somewhat problematic. It presumes that the mind is fully in control. After all, the argument was made by some feminists (note how rare it is to see the phrase ‘some feminists’; most people are all-too-willing to lump the whole diverse bunch in together) that what was needed was education. Education, my friends, would change the world. And I wouldn’t like to say that this is entirely untrue. But the assumption seemed to be that whoever was teaching the next generation could cheerfully shed their belief in the two sexes. This might have been true, but as politically active people have long known (and regularly denied), our wants, needs and desires are not quite so thoroughly within our control. In lots of ways, the assumption that any sexism or racism that existed within a person was entirely conscious has been nothing more than a handy way for those who were aware of the problems to declare themselves free of these terrible prejudices. The most sexism-aware person, male or female, can be misogynist and not even realise it. And as Alcoff showed us, all that time ago, racism occurs not just at the level of intention, but at the level of perception. It lies not in what we plan to do, but in how we see the world. It is not, then, something that we can merely think our way out of. If we were all purely conscious creatures, perhaps social constructionism might get us somewhere. But we’re not. Thank whatever deity you wanna invoke!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know what my take is, by now. The social doesn’t just affect what we can explicitly see, what we consciously think. It affects the every way that we dwell in the world, the very way that we are oriented towards or away from others, the ways we see, breathe, laugh, desire, hurt, smile, sleep, touch, read, speak… We are embodied subjects who are embodied in and through the context in which we live.

What this means is that suffering is much more than we are accustomed to thinking of it as. This is not to deny that bodies hurt. They do. I broke my tooth earlier this year, people, and smooshed my mouth into crazy Angelina-parody lips. I knows da hurt. But the hurt is never, can never be just natural, like we always assume; we make the distinction between pain and suffering as if one were purely physical and the other something more. We need to learn to pay attention to the specificity of our own experiences, and not automatically universalise from them:

This particular devotee is part of a religious procession. He is walking… impaled within what could be described as a type of elaborate metal scaffolding. The infrastructural support for these constructions is the devotee’s own body. Myriad metal spokes are driven into the skin and organs. The hands may also be pierced and even the tongue immobilized by long spikes thrust through the face, lips and neck. To be skewered by any one of these metal prongs would prove at least painful for most of us, and conceivably lethal. Bleeding, scarring, and internal injury would be the inevitable results of what, in a different context, could be read as abuse. Yet for the serious thaipusam devotee, none of these effects is realised. This man does not bleed, nor does he scar. Indeed, whatever the weltanschauung, structural frame, or cultural text – call it what you will – through which this man’s body is ciphered and allocated as “being in the world,” one can only presume that this information also informs the very matter of his body’s material constitution. (Telling Flesh, p. 3)

Vicki Kirby is here describing the Hindu ritual festival of thaipusam. This isn’t science fiction, it’s not a lie, it’s just different to the Western experience of embodiment. It’s telling, though, that it is so very hard for a Western audience to conceive of; indeed, the usual response is disbelief. The assumption that needs to be in place to doubt that veracity of this account is that there is a body that pre-exists the social.

Anyway, the point of this is to demonstrate that pain and suffering are bound up with the way that the body is constituted, with my way of being in the world. Merleau-Ponty says

it has been perceptively remarked that pain and fatigue can never be regarded as causes which ‘act’ upon my liberty, and that, in so far as I may experience either at any given moment, they do not have their origin outside me, but always have a significance and express my attitude to the world. (POP, p. 512)

This ‘attitude to the world’ might sound deeply intentional; but Merleau-Ponty is pretty clear that much of these ways of being comported towards the world are not conscious in the sense we might usually think of them. This means that suffering is always bound up with a whole mass of things about our lives; always bound up with its significance in and to our lives. This significance is produced not just neutrally, but nor is it just as ‘society’ as a whole defines it; rather, it occurs in relation to the unique but nonetheless culturally shaped habitual ways that we are in the world; not just the sometimes ephemeral, hard-to-spot habits of perception, but the very every day ways that we live.

Unsurprisingly, these habits are often informed by normalcy, as it is thought (not just by me), embodied by others and experienced by myself. When I say this, I don’t mean that we wander around thinking we’re normal, normal, normal. Rather, our own personal way of being in the world is built in reflection of the normalcy of our world: I drive a car without problems, can reach all the shelves in the supermarket, can hear conversations without needing to piece together the meaning, read with my eyes and drink a coffee at the same time and so on, and so forth… Yet the interruption of any one of these tiny elements isn’t just the interruption of that strand, but the shaking up of my whole way of being in the world. Some of these we tolerate. They just shake us a little, like almost running into a stobie pole (oops; showing my Adelaideanness there! I was only there for five years, people! ;-)) or perhaps not at all, when I don’t care whether I can hear the conversation or not. But when I suddenly can’t drive my car, can’t walk easily, or swiftly, or at all, or slowly lose my sight…. well, these trouble the entirety of my way of being in the world in ways that I cannot, physically or mentally (as if these two were separated) make sense of. Because they counter my usual ways of making sense. My attunement to the world, and its to me, is demonstrated to be off, out of kilter. And this troubles not just the individual act I’m trying to do, but my whole self, past, present and future. This, my friends, is suffering; and I cannot even get my head around it. All my ways of making meaning are gone. My world as I know it, gone. My self as I know it, gone.

Suffering, then, definitely does exist. It isn’t quite so contingent that we could ever ‘talk ourselves out of it,’ or pretend that ‘education’ as it’s usually conceived of, would be an adequate response. It’s also always different, because every way of being-in-the-world is unique. But what this all means is that the social model of disability never goes far enough: it pretends that the individual subject (not to mention their body) is always removed from society. Culture is bound up, at the most intimate of levels, with who we are, and how we are who we are. This means that even those who are congentially disabled (that is, born with a disability) can experience suffering: they too, through the binding together of syncretic sociability, through the adoption and adaptation of the comportments of others, are likely to embody normalcy. And thus the mismatch of their bodies to their comportments may cause a great deal of suffering; suffering we all too often attribute to the bodies themselves, and seek to fix. We naturalise suffering, make it of-the-body, make it essentially, none of our business, and all of medicine’s. The suffering of those with disabilities, then, will not merely be ‘treated’ by putting in accessible entrances to buildings, or offering TTY services (though these are important steps), as if all disabilities were equivalent anyway. The suffering of those with disabilities is a call to all of us, a call to us to pay attention to how and why and in what ways we embody normalcy, and reinforce it in our worlds. Why is it that this particular, extraordinarily diverse form of physical difference is set aside as something other, something separate, something I need not engage with? Why is this difference one I need not respond to? Perhaps in answering this question, we will return to the question of the gift: if I am given myself by those with disabilities, why the theft of declaring myself normal, declaring myself separate from them? These questions are ethical and political; and they are increasingly urgent as the field of normalcy narrows, and the number of those who suffer their own differences increases.

Forgive the fuzz; I don’t have time to proof-read this properly right now.

ilettrine9 know! Who’d have thought it? Actually, for all that I whinge about teaching, I do love it. Just not without reservation.

I’m working hard, and will hopefully have something I’m prepared to put up here soon. But just for now, a slip of e. e. cummings, who has often made me soar, ache, dance, still and bleed, because a student reminded me of this fact in writing a creative piece filled with her own inspiration, and that in turn recalled the gorgeous simplicity of my mother’s black, calligraphy-penned script of this poem which hung above her desk, perhaps my first exposure to words which evoke and invoke and do not anchor…


may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile