A legendary guide dog trainer once told me about finding a blind man who’d hidden himself in a closet on a Sunday afternoon. Guide dog schools are residential places with dormitories and shared meals. Blind people work with dogs and trainers six days a week. But on Sunday there’s leisure time and visitors often come, either to see students or, as is sometimes the case, have a guided tour of the school. But at the end of the day a student was missing. Trainers and housekeepers looked for him everywhere, and finally they found the man hiding in the closet of his room. “Why are you hiding in the closet?” they asked. “Because,” said the blind man, “this is where they tell me to go when visitors come.”
Now closets are strange things for they have heartless architectures. The Catholic confessional and rooms with moth balls are alike as their builders assume true suffering or joy occur elsewhere. If a man or woman is in a closet, he or she is reverently, passionately waiting for something else as Auden would say. If a man or woman builds his or her own closet, it’s for reactionary pleasures or meditations, which means its a superscription for suffering. Most agree closets are worth getting out of. But listen, you can hear the hammers in every quarter: people building closets. Old industries don’t die easily, especially when there are plenty of complicit sufferers and architects around.
Say what you like about closets, they have unhappy histories. Nevertheless, from a Disability Studies standpoint, there are real closets and metaphorical ones and if you’re crippled you better know the difference. One might even argue you should know the history of closets. An “armoire” was where the knight kept his armor and a chiffonier was a wardrobe for the storing of scraps of cloth–furniture for rag pickers. The chiffonier was also the place where servants could have sex. The history of stand alone closets is tawdry. The semiotics of the chiffonier are ugly. If you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird you know the chifferobe. Like the ark of the covenant its something you shouldn’t touch.
The metaphorical closet is the one we’re concerned with. Who tells you to hide there? In Disability Studies we say the Industrial Revolution sent cripples to real closets and Jeremy Bentham and Charles Babbage helped launch eugenics and voila, next you’ve got asylums. The Victorian age also launched home built closets and these continue to exist all over the world. In the film “Scent of a Woman” we first see Al Pacino as a blind veteran living in a darkened apartment attached to a garage, a home built closet familiar to disability history. People with disabilities are hidden away all over the world and make no mistake about it, there’s a solid economic determinism behind every single instance.
Bad is this may be, there’s something worse: the quasi-aleatoric machinery that turns real closets into metaphorical ones. The machine looks like its operating by chance which is the devilish thing about it. Chief Bromden, a principle character in Ken Kesey’s iconic novel about mental illness “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” sees this thing and calls it the “combine”. Kesey presents the machine as though its a hallucination–a likely scenario in mental hospitals in the 1950’s as patients were in fact given LSD for many sinister reasons. The Chief sees the machine turning real closets into metaphorical ones through the language of the medical cure industry.
“This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin, fitting into some nice little neighborhood where they’re just now digging trenches along the street to lay pipes for city water. He’s happy with it. He’s adjusted to surroundings finally….”
Nowadays, what with neo-liberalism the closet has a picture window which means you’re disabled difference is perfectly ok provided there’s a profit in it.
The metaphorical closets of neo-liberal capitalism are trickier than those built by Victorians because they require complicity with commodification–each model of difference is for sale nowadays. In the era of self-promotion what this means is that you “are” your closet–the individualized and sustaining “fixed up as good as new, better than new sometimes” portable difference machine.
But don’t forget my premise: all closets have heartless architectures. Nowadays it’s not enough to “overcome” a disability–one must be singularly heroic, non-inspirational, vaguely anti-communitarian, and above all else, “sellable”–Aimee Mullins on the Today Show comes to mind. The metaphorical closet equals corporate capital. Corporate capital likes differences that can be appropriated and contained for profit.
The best book on this subject is Robert McRuer’s Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability.
Who produces value? What performative roles of physical difference convey utility? How complicit are you in the construction of your metaphorical closet? Why do these questions matter? The short answer is that neo-liberalism’s models of difference are concerned with containments and that even rebellion is commodifiable. Worse, selling your difference is now an expectation.
Which returns us to the lonely matter of closets. It is a far better thing to claim you’re a metonymy for freedom than to say you “are” freedom.