“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.