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.

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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.

Dismodernism

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.)

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”

Watch this space

Hi all. I have yet to fully decide what this blog will be like, but I am currently planning on a combination of the following: more personal reflections on academia, including teaching and research; brief news items of interest to medievalists; provocative or interesting quotes from my current research reading; and snippets from my writing. Longer posts will probably go on Modern Medieval, but also get posted here.