Reading Quotes

Charlie Hebdo and Neighborliness

Today, I began reading David Nirenberg’s Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, and the attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the all-too-expected violence against Mosques provide an unsettling and imminent backdrop for what is otherwise some light research reading. Even if I were not horrified by these propagating acts of violence, my professional interests would already be raised in light of Salman Rushdie’s invocation of a “medieval form of unreason” as a way to describe Islamic radicalism. As many others have noted, the labeling of something as “medieval” is a comforting fantasy of casting the present (and our own responsibilities to it) into the darkened past. See this piece for an excellent take on it.

Of course, this event has brought back “The Clash of Civilizations” (as if it ever left). As a perfect example, Senator Lindsay Graham has stated that “Our way of life doesn’t fit into their scheme of how the world should be. If you stopped talking about radical Islam, if you never did a cartoon again, that’s not enough. What people need to get is they can’t be accommodated. They can’t be negotiated with. They have to be eventually destroyed.” It’s them or us.

These stark terms and boundaries, boldly-colored in lines of a rather cartoonish portrait, obscure the interdependence of Christianity and Islam. Nirenbeg describes this interdependence as “coproduction,” that religions coproduce each other in a dense network of identification and dis-identification. Another phrase he uses here is “ambivalent neighborliness,” an array of responses to the neighbor “ranging from love and toleration to total extermination” (2).

Senator Graham and many others would do well to heed Nirenberg’s analyses concerning the interrelationships between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam:

My goal in them [the ensuing chapters] is simply to convince you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have never been independent of each other: that is as neighbors, in close relation to one another, that they have constantly transformed themselves, reinterpreting both their scriptures and their histories. Their pasts are not discrete, independent, or stable, and neither are their presents or their futures. (12)

Total annihilation–or the rhetoric of total annihilation–can never be good public policy, and most importantly, it’s a blood-tinged fantasy that ultimately seeks to forget how much our neighbors mean to us, even (and sadly, perhaps especially) when we kill them.

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.

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.

A premodern posthuman?

Provocative questions from yesterday’s reading: “In what sense can there be said to be a premodern posthuman? One might approach the question from the perspective of Disability Studies, a critical movement that interrogates the fringes and limits of human experience – although most of its practitioners would be unlikely to define their object as such. Indeed, such a formulation runs counter to many disability scholars’ commitment to the destigmatization of disability and also to the study of cultural constructs of bodily difference.” Julie Singer, “Toward a transhuman model of medieval disability”