Disability Studies and the Flaming Pie



Disability Studies came to me on a flaming pie as Paul McCartney would say. The pie flew in the window while I was half asleep. The year was probably 1985 or ’86—somewhere in there, Reagan was sawing the nation in half and I was fresh out of graduate school in creative writing, home after two years of study in Europe, feeling discomfort with the way disability was used as metaphor both in literature and in public. I read and re-read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and began studying blindness and figurative language. I spent considerable time in the archives at The American Foundation for the Blind. I envisioned writing a book with the working title: “The Cyclops and the Seer: Blindness in Literature and Film” or something along those lines. The sharp dichotomy of vision loss as symbol either spelled abjection, monstrosity, blankness, or death—or it spelled compensatory powers of divination, intuition, spiritual grace—none of which has anything to do with real blindness. I began writing turbid, abstruse prose about reification, valorization, disambiguation, and god knows what else and then it dawned on me that I’m essentially a creative writer and I should write something in the manner of Joan Didion, nonfiction as story—the term “creative nonfiction” didn’t yet exist—but I knew what I wanted: lyric prose, prose like poetry, steeped in scholarship, rich with personal detail, and which, if properly composed would take non-disabled readers on a journey through blindness—a strange, rich journey, for though blindness is not what the metaphors say it is, its more interesting than able bodied people customarily allow. This approach eventually lead me to complete my first book, a memoir entitled Planet of the Blind. 


I didn’t know at the time there were others in my generation—that we’d become “wave one” of disability studies—Simi Linton, Kenny Fries, Brenda Brueggemann, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Lenny Davis—and so many many more. All of us were coming of age and entering the public square at the very same moment. As I say, I didn’t know there were others because my blindness in the 1980’s and early ’90’s was still a mountain—less figurative than might be supposed—for I couldn’t navigate on my own and spent my time in the smallest neighborhoods where I knew the streets. And while provincial life and poor navigation kept me isolated I also lost my adjunct teaching job at Hobart and William Smith Colleges—a loss that lead me to sue the school. They settled with me out of court and all I can say about the matter is it was disability related and ugly. I was in serious distress. I called the New York State Commission for the Blind, hoping they would help me find a new job. 





I felt like a bald man in a barber shop: people stopped talking when they saw me. Colleagues who I’d once thought friendly shied away. I’d lost my job in the summer and then it was autumn and with legally blind eyes I saw the trees flare into gold and I walked with a bent white cane and a cd player and listened to Viennese love songs, songs like cream puffs, and I decided it was time to get married. I would marry a dog. I’d been reading about guide dogs in the public library. I figured I’d marry a dog though all I owned was a suitcase tied with a rope. 



Of course I owned more than a suitcase. I had hundreds of poetry books and opera records. And I owned the streets with their long shadows. When you’re legally blind you can see a little but the window of my sight was growing smaller owing to mid-life cataracts. I went to a famous eye surgeon who said that removing the cataracts would destroy my retinas. He said it was better to go entirely blind. I went home and played Verdi’s La Traviata on my stereo and wept. It wasn’t the blindness that bothered me, it was the prospect of nothing. And the poetry books whispered you can surely count on nothing. I remembered Wallace Stevens’ closing lines from his poem “The Snowman”–The nothing that is not there/and the nothing that is. 


Then I was visited by a man from the agency for the blind. He was very nice—affable, with a voice you might hear on the radio. He wanted to help me find a new job. We spent long minutes talking about my resume: graduate school for poetry writing; eight years of part-time college teaching with administrative experience thrown in. As I say, he was very nice, which meant he couldn’t lie. “I don’t think you’ll ever find another job,” he said. And the poetry books agreed. What instruments we have all agree/the day of his death was a dark cold day.


Leaves flew past the windows. Some struck the glass and I thought of them as little counsels. As the agency man talked I thought of some lines of poetry by Christina Rossetti who was imagining the advantages of being dead: 


I shall not see the shadows,

  I shall not feel the rain;

I shall not hear the nightingale

  Sing on, as if in pain;

And dreaming through the twilight

  That doth not rise or set,

Haply I may remember,

  And haply may forget.




Meanwhile, as I was thinking about dying, the agency man added there was a local manufacturing company that made plastic lemons–the ones you see in the grocery store with the lemon juice inside. He said that they occasionally hired blind people. I might be able to sort the plastic lemons. I lit a cigarette then, and inhaled deeply. I’d give up smoking later that year but for the moment smoking was repressed laughter for I saw myself among thousands of plastic lemons in a cramped shed. I was wearing a suit made of moonlight. I could see myself juggling the lemons like a metaphysician. I was half in love with the idea. I had secret aspirations that I’d never be able to share. 


When the agency man left I grabbed the telephone and called the guide dog school. In the white tent of my mind I had a future. 




To this day the only diploma I’ve framed is from the guide dog school, as in March of 1994 I became an independent traveler for the first time. While others in the disability studies movement were gathering at the Modern Language Association, starting the arduous work turning academic attention to disability and social constructions of embodiment, I was walking with a guide dog around New York City, learning how to go places.  


We rode the subway to Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan to see “The Cloisters”—the Metropolitan Museum’s replica of a medieval monastery. We took the A Train to 190th St.—a trip that would have been unimaginable just a month before. People on the train loved the sight of my guide dog Corky. An old man said: “That dog looks strong as a tree!” And she did look strong. I could feel Corky’s strength in large and small ways—through her harness, and when she was simply lying at my feet on a rocking train.

At 190th St we took the M4 bus about a block. Poof!  We were in the middle ages.


We were visiting the unicorn tapestries, man and dog. We were in a quest. Corky was pulling hard, happy with the day. The tapestries depicted a hunt for the unicorn, a creature all school children know. We were early at the Cloisters and a guard offered to describe things. With a dog and a kindly stranger I entered the world of a unicorn hunt.In the last panel a unicorn, half goat, half narwhal, glowing like Jupiter, sat under a pomegranate tree, radiating magic against a backdrop of stars. 




Although I’m part of disability studies, I’m provisional within the field, my own choice perhaps, but maybe not. I distrust essentialism. I’m weary of the balkanization of alterities—suspicious of identity flags. Perhaps this has to do with my physical location which is always precarious and risky. Maybe I’m sufficiently Marxian to feel uncomfortable at the crossroads of neoliberalism and postmodernism. I’m fond of the book Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory, edited by Dave Hill, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole, and Glenn Rikowski. To whit: 


“Following tectonic shifts in the geopolitical landscapes of the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern social and political theory—with its preening emphasis on language, culture, and identity—has become the de rigeur conceptual attire among social scientists attempting to make sense of contemporary social life within late capitalism. Mining the terrain of identity politics, consumer fetishism and privatopia has become a central academic activity and is now considered theoretical chic. In contrast, Marxism has been mummified along with Lenin’s corpse, and its scholarly exercise has been likened to tampering with historical relics.


The joint ambition of uncovering the hidden ideologies secreted within Western representations of the ‘other’ and refashioning the antifoundational self, has disposed postmodern theorists to dampen their euphoria surrounding social transformation at the level of relations of production and to heighten their regard for reforming and decentering dominant discourses and institutional practices at the level of cultural transactions. According to Sam J. Noumoff, postmodern politics attempts (a) to separate culture from ideology, (b) to employ culture as a construct that diminishes the centrality of class, (c) to insert a neoliberal political system of intelligibility and policy agenda, (d) to perpetuate the belief in the ultimate futility of the[…]”


Excerpt From: Dave Hill. “Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/ylrtE.l



I just can’t be convinced that sexual politics, gender oppression, racial discrimination and disability abjection are remediated by performativity or deconstruction, for these activities are all privileged by the circuits of an economic system that relies precisely on privatopia and its variegated forms of consumer fetishism. 


I was late to the disability studies party because I was learning how to walk. I’m still late to the party because I don’t believe decentering dominant discourses of normative rhetoric does enough to protect the most vulnerable among us. I started with “Flaming Pie” and will end with an apology to Paul Simon—“Still Provisional After all These Years…”