No one who studies disability and its place in culture can overlook the severity of abstraction. As Ernst Cassirer famously said, we are symbol making animals. Abstraction means symbolism—the semiotics of analogy—blindness represents disarticulation and powerlessness for instance, but there’s a secondary dynamic of abstraction that has to do with positioning. One must plant a symbol like lunar astronauts sticking flags in the moon, and in this way symbolism is not simply a reflection of cultural habits but a conscious matter. The mind behind abstraction is deliberative. It believes disability has no value and seeks to enforce metaphors of abjection whenever disability enters the conversation. In fact abstraction and ableist conversation nearly always take the place of genuine encounters with disabled people. This has been on my mind for the better part of the past week ever since Richard Dawkins announced that women who discover their unborn children will have Down Syndrome should abort their babies on moral grounds. In order to believe this Dawkins must engage in deliberative abstraction, one might call it abstraction “squared” for what can be more cumulative and abject than disability and pregnancy? Another way to think of this is to say that the only thing worse than a disabled child is a prospective disabled child. Why would this be? Because “prospective” is the tenor of abstraction which is the generative faculty of symbolism. Remember that symbols are not value neuter and they’re not sprung from a vacuum. As a disability studies scholar and poet I tend to think of Dawkins as a bad poet. He knows nothing more about the future than the people who clean his office; knows zero about life with disability; but he has thousands of cliches for hopelessness at his disposal. As an amateur Buddhist I know rather unshakably that anything I may say about the future is driven by fear or ego and is largely worthless. As a person with a disability I know physically deviant life is precious, fascinating, and entirely indescribable by conventional habits of thought.
I should add that I bought Dawkins memoir last winter and found it to be gassy, self-absorbed, devoid of comic irony. Memoir depends on the latter for its value. A simple way to think of it is to ask yourself what do I know about my habits of mind “now” that I didn’t know last week? Dawkins can’t do this because he’s addicted to deliberative abstraction, which is like being addicted to switch flipping. One pictures early adopters of electric lights, demonstrating for their credulous houseguests what happens when you flip the toggle.