CTUALLY, 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.