Disability Studies

How Do You See Me?

I continue to be perplexed by this ad. In it, a woman with Down Syndrome begins narrating “This is how I see myself.” This narration overlays images of Olivia Wilde living her life, the full range of human experiences and emotions. It should be noted that Wilde is an attractive actress and has a striking appearance on screen. The narrator goes on to describe the events unfolding, the possibilities for her life. She says, “I am an ordinary person.” Inspirational music swells. At the end of the ad, the camera pivots in a 180 away from Wilde to show the narrator. She then asks us, “How do you see me?” This has spawned the #HowDoYouSeeMe hashtag on Twitter. In describing this ad, I noted the general attractiveness of the actress performing in it, and I do so not to draw a contrast between her beauty and the beauty of the woman narrating; however, I cannot help but feel that there is contrast being drawn nonetheless. The woman speaking and narrating, giving voice to worlds of possibilities, is disabled while the actress on screen does not share in that particular disability. We, the audience, are being asked to confront our preconceptions. But what about the ad’s preconceptions? This young woman sees herself as a normal, ordinary person going through life.  And why shouldn’t she? The ad’s view of “normal” at first does not seem to include disability. The disabled body is effectively erased in the ad except in the form of a spectral voice and the final image. This is a visual version of a statement I’ve heard again and again – “You’ve done so much despite your disability.”

I do understand it. Really, I do. I get a steady stream of patronizing and sometimes demeaning attitudes from people who only seem to see my wheelchair. And yet, I feel it is impossible to read this video as having any other message than “Inside every disabled person is a ‘normal’ attractive person just waiting to be recognized.” I’m uncomfortable with the insinuation of normativity that hangs over the ad. I do not think it is intentional, and I think this ad is, in fact, well-intentioned, but I agree with David Perry that it is an absolute failure.

Most importantly, I do not think it is possible to see past one’s disability, to extract those impairments and differences and prostheses from a person’s identity or sense of self. Nor do I think it is possible to experience life separate from one’s disability and difference.  For someone to say they see me and not the wheelchair is disingenuous at best, and a fantasy at worst. There is no there there. I can only speak for myself, and I cannot speak on behalf of of the Down syndrome community. But I do think there is a harmful message inextricably caught up in this ad, no matter how well-intentioned it is.

So, please no videos where I am narrating over Bradley Cooper doing mundane yet cool stuff. (Okay, if he wants to do a video for me to narrate I’m happy to do so as long as it’s not inspiration porn.)

Access, Publishing, and Unreasonable Demands

Ok, I wanted to write down a few quick thoughts that were proving too long for twitter. Inside HigherEd published an article about accessibility in publishing. In its presentation of the issue, issues of access are presented as demands, as an ultimatum. The language of “unreasonable” informs the response.

Lennard Davis, Catherine Kudlick, Margaret Price, Melissa Helquist and Jay Dolmage put together a one-page letter that encourages authors to solicit publishers to include accessible editions of texts simultaneously with the usual printed versions. The letter penned by Davis, et al. does similar work as the petition circulating recently that states panelists at academic conferences will not participate in all-male sessions.

From the letter:

As a scholar working in disability studies, I am dedicated to publishing work that is accessible to all scholars, including anyone with print-reading disabilities. For this reason, it is imperative that before agreeing to publish with [name of publisher], I have written assurance that materials will be available in accessible formats at the same time as any print copies.

It isn’t likely (to me) that most authors would submit such a statement to their publishers, but the existence of such a letter does much to raise awareness, and it also lists specific suggestions:

The technical specifications: Materials must be in EPUB 3.0 or later format with true, reflowable text embedded in them – not screen images. This makes it possible to resize the text (for readers with low vision) and read aloud (for readers using screen reading software). If DRM (digital rights management, which sometimes creates a barrier that makes it impossible for accessibility software to access the text) is going to be used, a DRM-free version must be available to persons with documented disabilities. The process for accessing a DRM-free version should be straightforward.

Currently the program “Adobe InDesign” – the program used by most large book designers – has built-in features for checking accessibility, but these should be test-run with actual users of screen-reading software since the tools for checking accessibility are still a work in progress.

It is important to remember that many charts and graphs are also unrecognizable to screen-reading software. Numeric tables replicating chart data should be provided. Instead of using color-coding for charts and graphs, differences in line style or “texture” should be used so that the chart can be understood in black and white. Data tables should never be converted into images, and basic accessibility guidelines need to be followed for table headers, titles, and so on.

Ideally, images, maps, and figures appearing in books should also be visually described, particularly when the images are central to the themes, arguments, findings, and/or narrative of the book. In this way, readers using screen reading software can still have access to these important features of the book.

These are good, practical recommendations for opening access. However, InsideHigherEd has a slightly different take on the issue:

The guidelines, a one-page template letter, read a little like an ultimatum. The letter opens by asking a would-be publisher to confirm in writing that print books and accessible formats will be made available simultaneously, then launches into an explanation of how publishers should handle everything from digital rights management to authoring software.

Lennard J. Davis, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the letter is meant less to threaten a boycott and more as a public service announcement. Some authors may not budge from the demands in the letter, he said, but others are likely to use it as a way to spread awareness about accessibility.

I am troubled here by the use of the word “ultimatum” and also the reference to “demands.” Yes, there is some direct language in the letter such as “imperative,” but these hardly read like demands or ultimatums. As someone with a disability, I have repeatedly, and throughout my life, been confronted with the fact that many view accessibility and accommodations as somehow unreasonable, that is they view them as demands being made rather than reasonable requests. Is it reasonable? This is often the question asked when considering issues of access or accommodation. We should ask, instead, is it needed? Does it include rather than exclude?

Prosthetics and the Dismodern Body in SGGK

Ok, so here’s my other, longer Kalamazoo paper. I’m returning to this later in the summer for a larger piece, so I’m very much thinking through things still. I am also apparently obsessed with Gawain right now.


Flirting with Integrity: Prosthetics and
the Dismodern Body in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Throughout Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain flirts with bodily integrity, or more to the point, with the desire for it. My use of “integrity” here cuts in two directions, gesturing not only to his ethical character but also to the state of remaining whole and intact. His arming as the pentangle knight conjures the fantasy of a body that is whole, not penetrated, complete; however, each of his encounters in the poem reveal that this seemingly intact body is really a body-in-the-making, or maybe even a body-in-the-unmaking, one that is always at risk of disintegration, dismemberment, and re-configuration. From the very moment that Gawain takes his uncle’s place before the Green Knight, our hero must confront physical and psychological vulnerability. To read this vulnerability, I look to the analyses of disability studies. And although the poem does not explicitly present a disabled or impaired body as we would often conceptualize it, its images of dismembered and incomplete bodies calls forth what Lennard Davis, a noted disability studies scholar, would call the dismodern body. Davis argues that we all begin from a position of disability, that we are all incomplete: “As the quadriplegic is incomplete without the motorized wheelchair and the controls manipulated by the mouth or tongue, so the citizen is incomplete without information technology, protective legislation, and globalized forms of securing order and peace.” In the context of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, then, I would argue that the knight is incomplete without his armor, his bonds of fellowship and loyalty, his reputation, and perhaps even magical objects. The objects and technologies that complete the body are prosthetics, real and virtual devices that fit onto one’s person, yet the hinge or seam is often showing. In this essay, I read the poem through the lens of recent work in disability studies in order to lay bare the anxieties and desires that Gawain and his fellow knights reveal for bodily integrity, and by extension, for the integrity of the body politic.

Continue Reading

Becoming Human, Some Brief Thoughts

One of the best things about winter break is that I have had a chance to finish a few books that have been languishing on my desk (or rather in my Kindle app) since the summer. One book that I finished is Allan Mitchell’s Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. I started this book eagerly, and it did not disappoint. However, my initial approach to it was as if I were sipping a nice bourbon, slow and pensive. Over the course of the semester, I would get into it here and there, often finding some vibrant or provocative sentence that would set my mind spinning in new directions. As I finally got a real feel for the book, however, and with the openness of break, I devoured the final two-thirds of the book.

I do not believe I am alone in thinking that this is one of the most important books published in the field in the last several years. I also think it would make an excellent text for an Introduction to Medieval Studies-type course. Along with all of the cultural, historical, and literary work Mitchell does, he also provides excellent introductions to object-oriented ontology and actor-network-theory, among other theoretical approaches.  For myself, I have been aware of these approaches for a while, but Mitchell’s lucid discussion has helped me gain a much firmer grasp of these ideas.

The book is organized into three chapters – the first, “Being Born,” on the micro and macro understandings of the development of the child in the medieval period; the second, “Childish Things,” an exquisite study of objects mostly through a close analysis of a single pewter toy knight, and later a wonderful reading of Chaucer’s narratorial posturing and of Sir Thopas; the third, “The Mess,” an examination of our dependence upon and interrelationship to objects, specifically the table and how it organizes and subjects us. Of course, this briefest sketch does not do justice to how wide-ranging the book is.

For myself, I was most interested in the first and second chapter. Mitchell describes the constant becoming of the human (I am using the Kindle edition, which lacks page numbers–this is from the Introduction):

The concept of ontogeny (becoming) is a better category than ontology (being) for capturing the creative, conjugated forms of earthly existence. Analogous processes are at work outside of the womb in infancy and beyond, an equally contingent and creative period. A newborn is delivered over to social networks, regimens, and mechanisms (shaping, suckling, naming, baptizing, language acquisition , etc.), all the conditions of a life so conceived. Human reproduction is therefore a story of life incomplete and in process (“ neotenic”), which is to say eventful, ecological, virtual, and radically dependent on so many material supports. Human development posits a self-estranging , coagulating proto-body at the origin of being, exerting immense pressure on notions of human identity, distinctiveness , freedom, judgment, and so on. It is a precious, if precarious, time when creatures are barely alive, exposed to and extended in a potentially limitless field of ancestral relations, consisting of passing states and partial configurations. It is a kind of becoming that is nothing but creaturely life: for a time unformed, insensate, unclothed, anonymous, unbaptized, prostrate , and speechless, to name a few of the marked deprivations that will be addressed early on.

Later, in the first chapter, “Being Born,” he reads Thomas Usk, Dante, and Pearl together in order to lay bare how “natality and infancy outlast childhood and go to structure some of the most important relations one can have in public and private life. They represent virtual ontogenetic conditions that are perhaps never escaped. Medieval writers see that nativity and infancy constitute creaturely vulnerabilities and vibrancies that penetrate into the future without end.” In this emphasis on ontogeny as the basic and fundamental quality of being human, we can see how what we call the human subject is cast into a web of associations and networks, dependent yet also interdependent.

In his discussion of toy ontology, the disruptive yet constitutive energies of miniature objects, Mitchell continues to trace how ontogenesis is an on-going process, and specifically, the role that objects play in it:

it is useful to have recourse to what Lingis, following Merleau-Ponty, calls a whole “postural schema,” our embodied manner of knowing and encountering the world: the ways fingers hold a cup, the back leans against a chair, or the eyes see a face to advantage. 180 Postures, gestures, manners, gait all show the traces of the world playing off against the body. Playing with things has long been seen as a way of acquiring the right postures, as witnessed earlier in Giles of Rome’s De Regimine Principum. Giles is a medieval witness to the phenomenological observation that the bodily schema is developed over time, and, as Lingis would say, that the body is proof of exposure and involution in a material medium. Inanimate things trace their histories that way. Of course, Giles introduces a normative element into his account of play and games, his immediate interest being in exercising the body to sort out correct ways of operating mouth, ear, hand, shoulder, and leg. The child is elevated above beasts by physical deportment . Yet miniaturization is likely to throw off any such kinaesthetic equilibrium (i.e., the decorum that Giles describes as belonging to the princely or knightly body), compelling a body to reckon not just with the scale of an object but also with the size and sense of the human subject before whom an object presents itself. For one thing, human proprioception (i.e., the perception of spatiotemporal position of the body) may be at risk given what we have noticed about the speed and duration of scaled objects. It may result in vertigo.

Playing with toys, with the objects at hand, the child can learn how to be properly and normatively human, that is, to comport its body in the expected manner. However, the toy, so often a miniature, can threaten this normative process. We seem to be at risk of being unraveled in the very process of being fashioned.

I’m not aiming to do a proper review of the book, although I look forward to reading the many that will proliferate in the coming months; rather, I’m drawing together a few passages that I found particularly suggestive in terms of how the category human is shown to be so limited and incomplete.

As I kept returning to ideas of incompleteness and interdependency, I wished that he would engage directly with the insights and analyses of Disability Studies. But, while Mitchell has focused more on key terms such as object and ecology than disability, I think that he has made a contribution to that field nonetheless. Or, I might say instead, this book is beginning to help me see how there are some very productive alliances to be forged between Disability Studies, Ecological analyses, and object-oriented ontologies. For example, here is one more passage from the chapter, “Childish Things”:

A sovereign figure is deposed, falling to insurgent matter , introducing another regime of attraction. The toy itself seems to secure autonomy in a sort of anarchic materiality, having toppled the “monarchy” of the human again.

I wonder how these sorts of insights can be extended to consideration of the prosthesis in medieval culture. Although the prosthesis could be seen to complete the impaired body, to restore a sense of sovereignty, I suspect its materiality remains “anarchic.” More on this at a later date.

I think that this book is required reading for anyone in the field of medieval studies or someone who is interested in the material aspects of the human, but I also think the insights brought together here are important for continued work on medieval disability.

CFP for “De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability” — Kalamazoo 2015

“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 (rick.godden@gmail.com) or Asa Simon Mittman (asmittman@mail.csuchico.edu) 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.

Infant Cyborgs

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.

Humanities Accessed

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 oldfashioned 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)

Kalamazoo paper, in closing

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.

Dismodernist ethics

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.)