Disability and Slow Thought

It was Hugh Trevor-Roper, writing of Gibbon who observed: “We all tend to simplify, perhaps to dramatise, our mental development. In retrospect, the slow processes of the mind are disguised, sometimes even obliterated, by the dramatic moment of discovery, or conversion. St Augustine’s tolle lege, Newton’s apple … intellectual history is full of such episodes which immortalise, though they may not explain, crucial stages in the transformation of thought.”

We talk in disability circles of the “overcoming” narrative– those memoirs and made for TV films where the “aha” moment is both the summit of long striving and a monument to the agonies of an exemplary cripple’s stamina or faith. “Inspiration porn” we call it. What’s most unfortunate is the misleading impression such stories convey. Real disability is not subject to conversion. Nor is it apprehended in a flash.


If inspiration porn is bad (and trust me it is) so is theory porn. “Culture has completed its work when everything is a sign” wrote William Gass–a troubled irony certainly–culture endeavors to narrow the signifiers–or failing that, to build recognizable maps with lines you can follow. Theory porn accentuates oppositional rhetorics in order to suggest or extol the preferred status of outlier bodies. Critical disability studies creates its own overcoming narrative by arguing disability or crippled-ness are active verbs until we are “disabling” or “cripping” neo-liberalism, compulsory hetero-normativity, or gym toned bodies. Yes, theory porn has its problems. Once at a conference I heard one theorist of disability attack another because the latter was devoted to physical fitness, and presumably insufficiently infirm to hold a position on the subject of disability. If the outlier body is theorized it best be sufficient unto its marginalization.

One must dare to be slow as the wheel chair on ice. Simplifying or dramatizing bodies is not much different from the overcoming narrative. Theory does quite often superimpose its own Aristotelian template over the broken body. It’s a very very slow business this altogether inexplainable body.