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.)
Well, now I’ll have to read Davis one of the days. The idea of “an ethics” rather than an “identity category” is very appealing.