From a Journal

 

Was it you who sat up writing in the summer night?

Was it you who feared poetry won’t solve a thing?

Yes. Despair lay on the water.

Yes. Ghost widows carried books

& vanished

Behind the apple trees…

**

Memory: a girl, her dress yellow as a buttercup…

Behind her, the green chill of the Baltic…

**

Politics in my time is much the same as in Voltaire’s day:

Off with his head; let him keep his head

But live exiled; rail against him;

Read his books in secret.

**

Catherine the Great did not die under a horse.

It’s not even a good story.

**

Livelier dreams do not always await the dreamer.

A principle problem.

**

Then there are the oldies:

The shirt in my dream was from my childhood. It had dreadful stripes. I wore it in the hospital, blind child, alone in a ward. The damned thing came back last night. You can count on the Id.

from “Letters to a Young Cripple” #2

“All societies are rational and irrational at the same time. They are perforce rational in their mechanisms, their cogs and wheels, their connecting systems, and even by the place they assign to the irrational. Yet all this presuposes codes or axioms which are not the products of chance, but which are not intrinsically rational either.”

(Deleuze, Gilles. “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” in Chaosophy. Ed.. Autonomedia/Semiotexte. Ed. Sylvere Lothringer. 1995.)

 

This is how it is with disability—the connecting systems of culture (which are concerned with the assignment of meaning) imagine physical difference can be assigned a rational position or location. The asylum and the disability resource center at You Name It University are alike because they separate physical difference from the body normal. For college faculty (many of whom have no authentic civil rights position beyond saying the word “diversity”) disability is a cut off category, because that’s what they’ve believed since elementary school. In this way they are perfectly rational. Power relations have taught them compulsory able-bodied-ness. But the problem for the advocate, the activist, the person with a disability (who presumes entrance to the academy or associated academic venues—conferences, lectures, etc.) is that his or her presence is assigned the status of irrationality.

 

If you say you want accommodations—computer aided real time captioning; sign language interpreters, braille, accessible websites, ADA compliant restrooms—just to name the basics—you are assigned the status of irrationality. This dual status—rational segregation and the irrational claim for civil rights makes disability citizenship almost impossible to attain.

 

Its a ragged self that survives. Its one that refuses to stop insisting on full inclusion and not mingy half granted and grudging accommodations. I’ve been saying things like this on this blog for 7 years but now I’m going a step further: I’m not excusing casual hand gestures from academics or conference organizers—the old “well we just forgot” moue of false sympathy—“So sorry friend. Yes, once again we don’t have accessible stuff. We’re good people. You should like us anyway.” I can no longer afford to forgive the easy assignment of physical difference to categories of complication or inconvenience.

In this way I feel like James Baldwin. I’m not playing along anymore. I’ll call my culture what it is. As Baldwin said: “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

 

Ah Baldwin. I need you today. He said: “The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” I belong to a generation of writers and academics who came of age before the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a high school student, a college student, a graduate student I endured horrific commentaries from teachers and professors. The dominant trope in American education is speed. Every syllabus is a race. The blind guy with glasses thick as padlocks needed more time to read. He wasn’t supposed to be there. In graduate school at the U of Iowa a famous literature professor named Sherman Paul said I shouldn’t be in his class if I had trouble with my eyes. Against this kind of power-leverage the disabled should demonstrate an all forgiving, all understanding, good nature.

 

Baldwin again: “No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.” But you see, my generation of “cripples” has paid a heavy price. I’ve paid many times over. This is why I’m not going to forgive inaccessible conferences, university events, programs, and the like. Its not 1978 anymore.

 

Baldwin: “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

 

Well I know what the world was like when I came in. I ain’t leavin’ it the same.

 

Here’s the deal. You get called “uppity” as Baldwin well knew. If you’re a cripple you’re a “malcontent” or you have a bad attitude.

 

And one more Baldwin quote: “Pessimists are the people who have no hope for themselves or for others. Pessimists are also people who think the human race is beneath their notice, that they’re better than other human beings.”

 

I think this is the problem with the overt or casual disregard for disability rights—both are ableism and both rely on pessimism.  Perhaps the better word is abjection. In her groundbreaking book “The Power of Horror” Julia Kristeva famously said of abjection:

“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark re- volts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.”

 

Abjection is Wallace Stevens’ “the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” and it lies there, quite close, and cannot be assimilated. As cripples we cannot be assimilated, though our estrangements are conditioned to point us always toward an imaginary elsewhere which can only exist in repulsion–we exist because we cannot exist. One thinks of abjection as the tenor of horror if not its gestalt.

What’s a be-horrored cripple to do? Keep getting into their buildings. Be suspicious of medicalized elsewheres, fake summonses, and external and internal repulsions.

Easy? Right?

from “Letters to a Young Cripple”

from Letters to a Young Cripple (a work in progress):

Dear ________,

So forgive me for starting with a grayness but as I recently joked with a paralyzed friend, “I feel like a battered old fish with many dents in his flesh”—the context—that it’s not probable I’ll see the advances I’d hoped for us when the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted over a quarter century ago. I’m old enough to be feeling what academics call accidie, a weariness, and if I’m not defeated I’m suspicious. Shorthand: we haven’t gotten far enough, and daily the news is incontestable. The “fish conceit” is what can happen to believers and how not to become the fish is the story (mine and yours) since disability bias surrounds us. (Bias is a story with many chapters like Bocaccio and knowing it never renders comfort, though if you’re a bigot you may enjoy schadenfreude. I once had an “iffy” friend who practiced “vengeance fantasy”—as he said, doing it nearly as much as he masturbated, seeing his enemies staked out in the Colosseum with lions chewing at their entrails, etc. He’d rub his hands and imitate Charles Laughton: “how do you like your God now, Christian?”)

Bias is a variorum edition. My spotty pal really meant what he said—if he’d had his way he’d have fried you in oil. Everyone has his own grayness. Discrimination, personified, wants us to join the Centurions, at least inside, and its first sign is indifference. In my experience street theater is one way to resist it. Thirty years ago when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki, Finland I went one night to a gritty, working class bar where I was accosted by a wildly drunken laborer. Everyone was painfully drunk–that manly near death atavistic Viking berserk hallucination of everything, and I thought: “all these years, so many wounds, so few praises.” That was when a man I did not know turned to me and said: “You are a Jew!” “You’re right,” I said, since I was young and in love with poetry, “I am a Jew!” It was the first time I’d ever felt the pins of anti-Semitism, I, a Lutheran with a long beard. He reached for me then but missed and grabbed another man. “You are a Jew!” he shouted. “No, it is I,” I said, “I am the Jew!” But it was too late. They were on the floor and cursing, two men who had forgotten the oldest notion of them all: in Jewish history there are no coincidences.

 

As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “bias is a clunker” and though it must be taken seriously, if you’re one of its chapter headings having a shield of irony becomes essential. You’re a cripple. You don’t belong in here. Don’t belong on this website, on this campus, don’t belong in a customary place of business. For years I used to carry custom made stickers depicting the universal disability access symbol inside a red circle with a line through it. I’d paste them on the doors of inaccessible restaurants and academic buildings and the like. I really need to get more of them but I can’t remember where I they came from, and as I say, I’m in danger of weariness. Dear young Cripples, I’ve been fighting a long time. Thank God for ADAPT. And don’t stop fighting. But don’t stop laughing either. As the great disability writer and activist Neil Marcus says: “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’…Disability is an art. it’s an ingenious way to live.”

 

Once while I was teaching at The Ohio State University I was invited to a meeting with a dozen faculty and former astronaut and Senator John Glenn. We discussed the future of digital teaching. Afterwards I boarded a Columbus City bus only to face a woman who loudly asked if she “could pray for me”. She assumed blindness was a sad matter—or worse—a sign I needed spiritual rescue. My guide dog shook his collar. Suddenly I felt wickedly improvisational. I stood up, grabbed the overhead pedestrian bar, and announced loudly so every passenger could hear: “Certainly Madame you may pray for me, but only if I can pray for you, and in turn pray for all the sad souls on this bus—souls buttressed on all sides by tragedies and losses, by DNA and misadventures in capitalism, for we’re all sorrowing Madame, we’re all chaff blown by the cruel winds of post-modernism. Let us pray, now, together; let’s all hold hands!” She fled the bus at the next stop. Strangers applauded. Improvisation allows us to force the speed of associational changes, transforming the customs of disability life. Disability Studies scholar Petra Kuppers writes: If the relations between embodiment and meaning become unstable, the unknown can emerge not as site of negativity but as the launch pad for new explorations. By exciting curiosities, by destabilizing the visual as conventionalized primary access to knowledge, and by creating desires for new constellations of body practice, these disability performances can attempt to move beyond the known into the realm of bodies as generators of positive difference. 

The polarizations, magnetic fields of crippledness are generators. It is not true that rebellion simply makes us old. We’re old when we give up.

And yet…the fights before us are promising to be both rewarding and very hard.

Dear young Cripple: I have the happenstance blues. They’re both accidental (aleatoric) and whatever is the opposite of accident, which, depending on your point of view might have something to do with the means of production, racial determinism from same, or all the other annotated bigotries of the culture club.  As a disabled writer I know a good deal about the culture club. Now back to my happenstance blues…

I’m right here. I’m terribly inconvenient. Blind man at conference. Blind man in the lingerie shop. All built environments are structured and designed strategically to keep my kind out. My kind includes those people who direct their wheelchairs with breathing tubes, amble with crutches, speak with signs, type to speak, roll oxygen tanks, ask for large print menus or descriptive assistance. I’m here standing against the built geographical concentrations of capital development. I’m here. I’m the penny no one wants anymore. My placement is insufficiently circulatory in the public spaces of capital. Which came first, the blues or the architectural determinism that keeps me always an inconvenience?

Capital creates landscapes and determines how the gates will function. Of course there was a time before capital accumulation. It’s no coincidence the disabled were useful before capitalism. The blind were vessels of memory. The blind recited books. Disability is a strategic decision. Every disabled person either knows this or comes a cropper against the gates when they least expect it.

What interests me is how my happenstance-disability-blues are exacerbated by neoliberal capital accumulation. For accumulation one must thing of withholding money from the public good or dispossession, which is of course how neoliberal capital works.  Here is geographer David Harvey in an interview, talking about just this:

Accumulation by dispossession is about dispossessing somebody of their assets or their rights. Traditionally there have been rights which have common property, and one of the ways in which you take these away is by privatizing them. We’ve seen moves in recent years to privatize water. Traditionally, everybody had had access to water, and [when] it gets privatized, you have to pay for it. We’ve seen the privatization of a lot of education by the defunding of the public sector, and so more and more people have to turn to the private sector. We’ve seen the same thing in health care.

What we’re talking about here is the taking away of universal rights, and the privatization of them, so it [becomes] your particular responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the state. One of the proposals which we now have is the privatization of Social Security. Social Security may not be that generous, but it’s universal and everybody has part of it. What we are now saying is, “That shouldn’t be; it should be privatized,” which, of course, means that people will then have to invest in their own pension funds, which means more money goes to Wall Street. So this is what I call privatization by dispossession in our particular circumstance.

    

At the neoliberal university and all its concomitant conferences, workshops, and “terms abroad” (just to name some features of higher ed where my own disability has been problematized) the provision of what we call “reasonable accommodations” under the Americans with Disabilities Act is often considered to be in opposition to accumulation. For instance: I was asked to teach a term abroad in Istanbul. When I pointed out that Istanbul isn’t a guide dog friendly city and that I’d have trouble with the traffic and requested a sighted guide accompany me there, I was told this was too expensive. Think about it! One additional human being to keep me from getting run over was too expensive! The “term abroad” was actually designed to accumulate capital, right down to the lint in each student’s and instructor’s pockets. I decided to avoid getting run over and didn’t go.

Privatized culture means everything, including your safety is your own responsibility. I’m in mind of this. I’m not fooled.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered I wrote about gated communities and the intersection between a black teen’s death and disability exclusion. I opened my piece this way:

I know something about being “marked” as disability is always a performance. I am on the street in a conditional way: allowed or not allowed, accepted or not accepted according to the prejudices and educational attainments of others. And because I’ve been disabled since childhood I’ve lived with this dance of provisional life ever since I was small. In effect, if you have a disability, every neighborhood is a gated community.  

 

I also wrote:

…as a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always?

I concluded:

There’s a war against black men and boys in this country. There’s also a backlash against women and people with disabilities and the elderly. The forces in all these outrages are the same. The aim is to make all of the United States into a gated community. On the one side are the prisons and warehousing institutions; on the other side, the sanitized neighborhood resorts. I hear the voice: “Sorry, Sir, you can’t come in here.” In my case it’s always a security guard who doesn’t know a guide dog from an elephant. In Trayvon’s case it was a souped up self important member of a neighborhood watch who had no idea what a neighborhood really means. I think all people with disabilites know a great deal about this. I grieve for Trayvon’s family. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him and will never forget.

I have the happenstance blues and they’re a function of design. Differences, and the welcoming of differences require architectures and expenditures of inclusion. It costs money to include the outsiders. You might have to train security guards, authentic ones to protect Trayvon and Stephen. Imagine if they were able to live in peace, share their stories, and spend their money in your neighborhood. (One can’t forget Trayvon was found dead with skittles and a can of soda, the smallest reckonings of teenage happiness…)

Just as accumulation by dispossession involves the creation of labor-free territories, local dispossession requires the devaluation of the individual. As a disabled man I am Trayvon and he is me.

 

 

 

Disability and Thistle Soup

Disability, understood as a social construct, must stand for resistance to custom much as a thistle represents soup in hard times. One thinks of disability soup as the unlikely but affecting disparity within divergence. In turn social construction is tenuous, febrile, a poor product of imagination. (For years, teaching creative writing, I’ve reminded students imagination is not wholly good as it’s wildly inattentive to reality and committed to paranoia. I think of “normalcy” as construct in much the same way. All the disabled must.)

Thistle and soup. (Moose and squirrel.)

Thistle: custom’s weed. Grows anywhere. Makes a good soup in times of famine.

Resistance: custom’s weed. Grows anywhere. Makes a focused alternative to normalcy’s paranoid fantasies—the worm inside the thistle if you will.

Do you see I’m having fun?

Disability soup: with or without the worm?

I’ll have mine with the worm. Extra protein.

Will this be a good day? Disparity within divergence. Resisting normalcy, foregoing it’s food.

Yes. Having some fun.

Have some thistle soup.

No one uses spoons.

A medicine dropper is best.

You don’t need much.

Henry Ward Beecher once said: “To array a man’s will against his sickness is the supreme art of medicine.”

Just a little thistle soup.

Gives a cripple the strength to get up and do her true divergence.

 

Whitewashing the Old Post

G.K. Chesterton, explicating conservatism, once wrote: “All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”

Chesterton, in his discrepant way, begs the question, “why repaint the post?” And it’s a fair question—liberal, conservative, whatnot, for “why” is at the core of situational ethics as all children know.

I’m in mind of Chesterton in part because I’ve a good friend who loves him but also because I believe that in a torrent of change one should know conclusively what one believes and understand precisely why, which means separating pathos from the well spring of an idea, then quizzing that idea half to death. I see very few conservatives or liberals doing this work, which is “the” work of democracy.

When a man or woman is sick and the doctor can’t find the cause she’ll use the term “idiopathic” which sounds like a blue-ribbon diagnosis until the patient learns it means the physician has no clue why the poor soul itches from head to toe. Just so, if we don’t know why we’re repainting the post, or whether the thing should be painted at all, then we’re simply framing positions based on artful shrugs. The Mexicans are the problem. The big banks are the problem. Idiopathic rhetorics.

Within ten years the United States will not be able to grow corn. We know this. Climate models tell us. Our national debt is escalating at alarming levels. Inequality is at its highest levels since 1968. These issues will not be properly discussed during the coming campaign for the presidency. We will hear old idiopathies. Law and order. Strengthening NATO.

Even a gardener who reads no news understands you should choose a post carefully.

 

Turning Off the Morning News

What is it about the “soul” that it needs prepositions? Of or from the soul constitute our relational understanding, our separateness, for souls are always understood as being transitive extracorporeal rhetorics which we strive to master or at the very least receive. Sometimes we get silly and say “Come Soul clap your hands,” by which we mean, “c’mon, say something” as if perhaps, in a final reduction, the soul is like a horse counting numbers with its hoof. Surely “of or from” the soul will always be easier to say than “with” as soulful accompaniment is mystic and evades phenomenology—with the soul is like the hue of heaven, unfounded and pious. Now I’m on this humorless path because I believe in the soul—that green force of the sea—and because hugging it, loving it, turning with it, it’s impossible to tell who is my teacher. I am “with” for certain.

When the soul is kidding it says it’s sad. When it’s having a riotously good time it listens for oncoming rain. Wind blows darkness against your cheek. Soul is admiring.

So I wake this way.

My soul was convinced that it loved me. In my life I sat in the grass, knitting it a failed sweater.

Sometimes we get silly and say “Come Soul try this on.”

 

 

Love in the Time of Invariable Terror

Getting struck by a motor vehicle is my worst fear. The news from Nice is universally terrifying and I make no special claim to dread. The is not the time for philosophizing about the internal combustion engine but I can’t resist pointing out trucks and cars can be easily engineered to prevent running over human beings. And now that I’ve broken my vow to avoid pontificating I’ll stop for the dead need us to circle our minds around love just as children place their hands around a ball. It’s easy to forget that love is a practice and more—a thirst perhaps, but never a habit. All things not habits are devoted roundly and magnifying. Remember hate is square. A white truck, a tank, a naval destroyer are never “of or pertaining to” our rounded angels.

I cannot give up on love.

Love is a few flickering points like the starlings at dusk. One wants to hold them, bear them up somehow. Impossible. So the mind paints them with its tiny brushes, carries them inside. In dreams we love every bird. Even the homely ones.

I cannot give up on love.

Perhaps everything I’ve wished for has belonged to someone else. Then I will love the empty circle.

Grieving for the victims of Nice…