Grievance in America, 24-7, No Matter Who You Think You Are

Americans are uncomfortable with their bodies which means they become militant when they claim the body as a marker of identity. I have done this. I’m blind. I’ve written extensively about the joys of being who I am. The body is not receptive to what I may say about it. That’s a sad fact. Society is only conditionally receptive to what I may say about it.

I identify as disabled. I have to. I’m not going to navigate the world with safety if I don’t use the proper accommodations for vision loss. Then I say, “I have no loss.” I claim my utility and Jeffersonian right to pursue happiness. I’m not lost. I don’t need to be found. I don’t need salvation.

When you claim your body in America you enter a honeycomb of some complexity. How many billions of dollars are spent on advertising that urges people to feel more than passing disdain for their very physicality? No, I don’t want to look it up.

I’m for all the body rights movements but I’m never tricked into thinking that by hugging my body I’m free of the contempt mechanism. It tends to have the last laugh.

If you claim to love your body but spend all your time hating the compulsory normative complex—you shouldn’t be gay; fat; a wheelchair user; blind; deaf; get a cure or purgative—you know the drill, you will spend your life railing against the dominant culture to such an extent you’ll become, quite possibly, a victim of your own identity rage and to such an extent you may not be able to function outside of a small colony.

Which leads me to the problem I’m struggling with. The small colony habituation of Americans who struggle with self-contempt, which is never overcome with slogans or cultural theories alone, lends itself to unhappy clusters of victimhood. This is fully democratized which means Trump voters, Bernie voters, civil rights activists of every calling, can all be classified as either potentially or fully against civics.

You’re not supposed to like your body. You’re encouraged to prefer happiness to the daily grind. Americans are conditioned to feel deprived of easy joy. Someone else is always getting happy. If you believe advertising, you’ve a big and weak superego. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who pointed out that Americans have so much self contempt that when they jumped out of airplanes in WW II they shouted: “Well, here goes nohin’!” He also noted that the chief expression of interpersonal disdain in the USA is: “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?”

Enter Trump voters. Vonnegut would understand them. Trump both deflects and extends their self-contempt. They’re not happy because others are stealing their joy potential. They’re not rich and Trump tells them over and over it’s not their fault it’s because of foreigners or elites or people of color or you name it. “If you’re so smart why ain’t you rich?” becomes a license to bitch, rage, be violent, taunt anyone who you believe is in your way.

These ghosted body-contempt dynamics are equally true across the proverbial aisle. Bernie Sanders voters believe others are stealing their wealth, their autonomy, their hopes and dreams. Again it’s others who are doing this—and again there’s the license to bitch, rage, and taunt anyone you believe is in your way.

One sees this on the contemporary college campus where progressive students rage against multiple systems they believe are stealing their joy potential. Capitalism, classist society, patriarchy, big pharma, polluters—all of which are very real mind you—are given undue positions in the honeycombed privacies of the mind (to borrow from Melville) until, yes, one has a license to bitch, rage, be violent, and taunt anyone who you believe is in your way. I’ll argue that these reactions are deleterious to students for it gives them the false assurance that aggrieved identity is all anyone needs in the village square.

Body claiming is crucial as a first line of defense against racism, homophobia, ableism, misogyny, and all other commodified disdain for our physical lives.
But it can become amber to the fly. Grievance is in the glue. The best thinkers acknowledge oppressive systems and live beyond mere victimhood.

In a recent review of some new books about the opioid epidemic in the USA Emily Witt quotes a writer who goes by the moniker “Anxious Dope Fiend” who writes of the joys of oxycodone:

The oxycodone experience is difficult to describe to an opiate virgin. Personally, I feel as if I have suddenly gained all that I want in life and no longer have anything to fear. I am perfectly content both mentally and emotionally. All the tension slips from my body and I feel warm and utterly comfortable, as if I were sitting beside a roaring fire, wrapped in a delicate cashmere blanket, rocking gently back and forth. Communication is pleasant but unnecessary. Under the influence of oxycodone, no companionship is needed. I accept myself and the world just as we are, not begrudgingly, but eagerly, ecstatically even.

Is it just me or do any of my readers also wonder if this passage represents the perfect synthesis of grievance culture?

Disability Poetics: Essay Number Four

I peel off my skin, hair, toss away my eyes, walk around with veins exposed, all the while “me” in a hanging blood gout. You can tell it’s Kuusisto: his heart ticks like hot metal.
“It’s me! It’s me!” says the heart. The bones stick out. And he waves his poems like a child begging attention from adults.

“The first and perhaps most obvious literary representation of disability is that in which it acts as some form of ethical background to the actions of other characters, or as a means of testing or enhancing their moral standing. Martha Stoddard Holmes (2002, 228) refers to this kind of representation as “critical null sets, convenient containers for the essential human emotions required by the nondisabled characters around them.” ”

(Ato Quayson. “Aesthetic Nervousness.”)

Ah but the crippled poet has given up on the moral standing of others.

Nevertheless she, he, they, them, naked, slick, drifting, refinds the solitudes from which we’re born.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number Three

John Ruskin wrote: “all architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame.”

The service to the human frame is precisely the thing Ruskin understood least though I’m not willing to throw away the Seven Lamps of Architecture. In any event you can see the Victorian problem. The mind and body perforce occupy separate rooms. You can call them Jekyll and Hyde.

Speaking as a cripple and a blind one at that, the schism-problem still has to be endured where architectures are concerned. Have you ever tried to pass through a revolving door with a guide dog? Yes and stairs built to enforce grandeur are surely an endurance test.

In his excellent book “Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education” Jay Dolmage talks about the ideological nature of steep steps:

“If we were to object that such steps make the university inaccessible, many universities would make the argument that steep steps are stylistically desirable, that they fit with the template, the architectural fingerprint of the school: all the buildings are the same color, with the same size Ionic columns, maybe even the same number of stairs leading up to buildings. These counterarguments show the ways that in the construction and maintenance of the steep steps there is also a latent argument about aesthetics or appearances, one that trips over to the classroom, into ideology and into pedagogy, where teachers are also sometimes concerned about pattern, clarity, propriety—and these things are believed to be “beautiful””

Steps are my enemies and the faculty ableists who unknowingly sweep those steps are to me the poorest sect of all, praying and fasting to keep the deformed out of the gated yard.

Ode to the University’s Steps

I, a blind man,
Cannot see you
But I hear you
And I swear
You sing
Not of petroglyphs
Nor of Venus
You sing of fire
With mouths
Of earth
Your broken voices
Open a dirge
Of buried light
So I must tap my way
Up and down
Your grave song
Pretending
You’re innocent
And I know
You will never
Believe me
My friends
But the stones
Of the chapel
Sing of great violence.

Disability Poetics, Essay Two

After the usual greetings….

Let’s talk about the up river blues, terror capitalism, how to live and what to do against a backdrop of Bram Stoker dread…I often imagine I’m closer to the gothic than many of my friends. Because I might die today stepping into traffic, blind, but with a dog for company. And I could die tomorrow in a strange hotel on my hands and knees trying to plug in an electric fan, dead too soon like Merton. And one must think about letting go slick phantasms in the buying and selling laundromat that is America, let go of the gruel thin lingo of political talk. Give away the early text books. Yes up river. Yes the blues. Yes a song or two about catfish.

Disability Poetics: Essay Number One

Critical disability studies and crip studies seek to destabilize traditional modes of body analysis and affirm (perhaps an ableist trope) a post-static and unreferenced sense of bodies. I sometimes think of classic, normative bodies as vanishing before our eyes like Brigadoon. In this way I relish what Lennard J. Davis calls the end of normalcy. I like to say (because I’m a poet) that I’m not a blind man at all but instead a rider of dragons. The smoke I leave behind is poetry. It suits me. This is disability as epistemological fancy. This also suits me.

John Ruskin wrote: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” I’m not so naive as to agree but where the spirit is concerned I’ll take it. Poetry and disability are snug together in the mysterious, rich, daily toil toward newer potentialities. If Ezra Pound was right and poetry is news that stays news one might say crippled poetry is the news which also invites you to turn the page. I’ll say the disabled are different over the course of the day. All disability is protean. We work with it and against it and we adopt multiple accommodations and no one knows more than the crips we’re not static bodies at all. By day’s end my dragon might be a gila monster. And I might be inapparent as twilight comes. Maybe all you’ll see of me are my pin prick glowing spider’s eyes—you know, those eyes that scare children on camping trips.

When I got my first guide dog back in 1994 the guide dog school made me sign a paper that said, among other things, that I wouldn’t use my guide dog for the purpose of begging. Imagine the back stories. I went home and wrote the following poem:

To a Blind Man Selling Pencils: New York City

And then, others arrived:
Eyes first, surveyors, important men,
Men who wore the flag—runners,
Who fill the streets in every town.
They carried sacks like thieves.
Every day such men feel their blood rise:
It uses them, returns them to the avenues
And I alone discovered them, one by one.
I was of the provinces. I was reflected
In their eyes like a fire.
Some men possess the color of origin—
The blind man is amaranth, aman-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Still I saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Crossed the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
My plea had the whiteness
Of things that have no use in life
And the words were Nothing more than a scar
That someone must have given me.
Why then did your name appear
Like the marks of a wheel
In this unyielding light?

What was I after? For one thing a reader response confusion between the able bodied starer and the thing stared at. Abjection is currency and it is exchanged to the detriment of both parties. Sighted people protect themselves from this by imagining they’ve not been changed by their acts of half conscious charity—but fear and beneficence are a losing hand for they suggest poverty and neglect are the yardsticks by which all people must be judged. Another way to say it is: if the disabled must represent society’s failures then you the apparently abled observer must be more than half in love with sufferance. The most often employed phrase for this is “there but for the grace of God go I.”

How many scars can the able bodied give the disabled? None if we say so.

A Perfectly Level Headed Note Now that I’m 64

I was born on this date 64 years ago. My twin brother died in the next room.
I was born prematurely by three months. I lost my vision in an incubator.
I’m aware that even today there are “bioethicists” who’d argue against my existence.
I know who they are. There are one or two at the university where I teach.
Sometimes I tell myself I know more than I used to. I know that not all Greek infants with disabilities were put out to die on mountains. I know that Oedipus means swollen foot and his story is a perfect disability dumpster fire. I know his story still haunts the blind. I know there are one or two at my university who believe the blind shouldn’t be on campus. Or the lame. Or the mute. They ruin a perfectly good agora. I know these things but care less about them since I know the arc of history bends toward disability justice. I really do believe that. I also know that universities hate hiring the disabled. I believe that will change. I have to believe these things. Tap your shoes together three times Dorothy. Sam Cooke: “A change is gonna come.” And maybe not today. On the other hand….

What the Imagination is For: Reflections on Boyhood Cruelty

I make jokes like most people. When I was young I made some cruel jokes as I was bullied for my disability and I looked for children more vulnerable than I was in order to humiliate them and gain a modicum of status. Status is a fragile thing when you’re twelve years old. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining this required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.

I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him. It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.

What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!” Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board. But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”

I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.

That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name calling spurred on by the current putative president; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with a blog post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man. But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big bodied twelve year olds I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.