Disability Teaching in the Age of Ennui

Good morning disability peeps. It’s time. Aller se confesser. I’m making you my priests dear readers. I’ve sinned, though as is the custom let me say it’s a minor affair. Here’s the deal: I imagined after almost thirty years of the ADA, as a lodestar if not simply the law, well, I thought there’d be something like utopian éclat. I believed the disabled would burst onto the scene, collectively, shoulder to shoulder like the Red Army…or even the Salvation Army. Instead there’s been a splintering effect. Éclat in the fullest sense.

I’m writing about ageism. Move over Rover.

I taught two grad courses in disability studies a year and a half ago. One class focused on post colonialism and disability novels; the other was on disability and memoir. Because disability related courses are hard to cross list at my university I wound up with roughly six students in each class.

All went swimmingly for a time. We talked about Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s idea of “narrative prosthesis”—the ways in which stories are extended or dis-tended (my word) by the uninformed use of disabled characters. Think of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The Light We Cannot See” which makes heavy use of a blind teenaged girl who, despite Doerr’s imaginative ministrations, is unlike any blind person you’ll ever meet. She’s a genius on the inside but fully helpless so that her aged father has to bathe her. Yuck. Narrative prosthesis indeed.

Cultural appropriation department: non-disabled people “can” write disabled characters but they rarely do a good job. Notable exceptions exist. Toni Morrison’s “Shadrack” comes to mind. Some may argue but I believe Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” is reasonably good.

Both the classes unraveled on me. I’ve been teaching for thirty years. What happened? Two things. 1. The students didn’t want to do the readings. They were difficult. Novels like Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” and “The Tin Drum” and cultural theory about literature and post-colonialism bothered these students. One actually said about halfway into the semester: “Why are we reading these books?” That was the thing—in both courses the students, most of them Ph.D. aspirants in disability studies wanted quite simply to talk about themselves. The aim of a class was (apparently) to talk about their respective feelings.

There I was, teaching like the literature professor I’ve always been. Guess what? For the first time in my teaching life I was actively disliked.

There are many ways to think about this: the readings were probative and demanding; I’m a terrible teacher; if a class is small why should we have to do real work; he’s just an old blind guy.

I gave them a lot of leeway, imagining they could do the work and talk about books. This turned out to be largely untrue.

Eclat: splinter; no child left behind; unable to read carefully; impatient; and worse, no interest in the broader global dynamics of disability figuration. “I’ve got my disability posture.”

What can we possible learn?

I’m still sorting this out.

But I felt the intolerance toward complexity and the ageism. I was just an old, inconvenient blind professor.

Why “blind” as opposed to merely professor?

Because without a sense of disability as arm in arm work, ableism still exists. What could a blind teacher possibly know?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Your Astrology

If you were born on this date

It was likely wartime

And hardly your fault

Though it was likely wartime.

America eats with a baby spoon

But this is not your fault

A violent infant state

Is scarcely your fault.

It was wartime

And the pond where you were born

With its oxidizing auto

Was not your fault.

An infant state

Is not your fault.

A violent state

Is scarcely your fault.

No one can blame you

For the martial music.

Yes I stare at my mirror

Leaning close as the blind do

And I declare

This isn’t mine

Though it is

As Poe knew—

This telltale

War-heart

Mine and yours

You can look it up.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

On the Pleasures of Hating, American Style

“The white streak in our own fortunes is brightened (or just rendered visible) by making all around it as dark as possible; so the rainbow paints its form upon the cloud.”

—On the Pleasure of Hating, William Hazlitt

The leaders of nations are again whipping up hatred and though one may stoutly observe this circumstance is customary I don’t think the American variant of it is time worn. Donald Trump represents a national vanity, the disdain that comes at the ends of empires. The white streak in America’s fortunes is soiled and Trump’s boys fear they’re losing control of the census. Trump’s aspersions are steeped in rhetorics of scarcity and the terror of dark hordes. This is not to say that prior empires have been without their particular gloating rancor but Trump’s possessed by a vision of absolute scarcity built on a racialist proposition of thievery. He believes the colored peoples of the earth are stealing from America’s hard working white people. Victorian bigotry was built in large part around the idea that foreigners were sinister carriers of disease or represented chaos that must be contained—Dracula is a novel about the British fear of the east more than anything else. Trump’s Dracula is a hydra of ethnicities and yes, women and cripples and queers who seek to steal America’s vitality. In this way his hatred and its expression are vampiric. It is altogether fair to wonder if “The Donald” has ever donated blood.

Now another word for this kind of hatred is despair. After the murder MacBeth says: “For, from this instant,/ There’s nothing serious in mortality:/ All is but toys — renown and grace is dead.”
It’s the age for cowards. The hating coward feels no guilty remorse. it’s enough to have power. If this power is based on despair and has no nobility that is the way of it. Another way of saying there’s nothing serious in mortality is not to say life is cheap but that it has no grand purpose beyond the acquisition of personal power. It’s the rage of humiliation. In her unjustly overlooked book “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals” Iris Murdoch wrote: “the condition (for instance as humiliation) may, almost automatically, be ‘alleviated’ by hatred, vindictive fantasies, plans of revenge, reprisal, a new use of energy. There is, which can be no less agonising, a guiltless remorse when some innocent action has produced an unforeseeable catastrophe. A common cause of void is bereavement, which may be accompanied by guilt feelings, or may be productive of a ‘clean’ pain. In such cases there is a sense of emptiness, a loss of personality, a loss of energy and motivation, a sense of being stripped, the world is utterly charmless and without attraction.” There can be no better description of Donald Trump and his gestalt than this.

The fish in the sea is not thirsty and Trump doesn’t know how stripped he is. He strips others—in every way. This is why his political imagination is joyless. He hates and his “base” as it’s called on television is thrilled. This is what Simone Weil called “malheur” a type of affliction. Hillary Clinton was wrong when she called Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters “a basket of deplorables” because most of them feel neglected, powerless, betrayed by the powerful, and so want little more than vengeance. All is but toys—Trump gives them the nursery of rage and it makes them real. One thinks of the commercial where an elderly woman has fallen and can’t get up. The poet Paul Valery: “the desire for vengeance is the desire for balance.”

Vengeance and balance, vindictive fantasies, cowardice, a loss of energy and motivation are the essential ingredients of the Trump pleasure principle. You might say these are primordial factors in the rise of Fascism but in America it is more accurate to call it a fetishized pissing contest.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Those Old Contours of Ableism

Disability is everywhere once you learn to look for it. Elvis Presley had continuous high grade pain the last ten years of his life. Samuel Johnson was legally blind, suffered from seizures, and may well have had a variant of Tourette’s Syndrome. The people in my neighborhood are touched by disablement. Some show it. Others do not. Normalcy, the belief in it, the animadversion to live it or else is the most destructive fiction in the world. What does it avail me to say so? And why do I keep saying it?

In her excellent book The Contours of Ableism (an elegant title I think) Fiona Kumari Campbell imagines the structural and attitudinal dispositions against the disabled as residing within a telos or set of illusions that maintain the non-disabled identity. When I write against disability discrimination and the privilege indexes of ableism I’m engaging in the work of all disabled activists by asserting the truth of the matter:

“Ableism refers to: a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human.”

Excerpt From: “Contours of Ableism.” Apple Books.

So if there are so many disabled people around why does compulsory normalization still rule the roost? The contours of ableism are protean rather than strictly geometric.

Fiona Campbell writes:

“Whether it be the ‘species typical body’ (in science), the ‘normative citizen’ (in political theory), the ‘reasonable man’ (in law), all these signifiers point to a fabrication that reaches into the very soul that sweeps us into life and as such is the outcome and instrument of a political constitution: a hostage of the body.”

Excerpt From: “Contours of Ableism.” Apple Books.

One of the interesting things about ableism is that whatever form it takes it occupies the future perfect. There will be time enough to make things right for the non-normals but not today. One may fair say “not today” is the motto of the thing. Non hodie in Latin. Picture a flag bearing the image of an indolent house cat. Not today will we question our assumptions about the majority of bodies on the planet. Ableism also refrains from saying “maybe tomorrow.”

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Please Mister, Stop Appropriating the Poor Cripples, Or, “The Blind Girl’s Sponge”

1.

A new novel appears; gets lots of praise; about a man who suffers a facial deformity and whatever passes for his inner life is destroyed. You guessed it: the author isn’t disabled. But he’s used a tried and true formula: deform a character and you can cover up your own literary deficiencies. Or nearly. Kafka understood this but his grotesqueries were about capitalism and not about individuals.

2.

In the airports, train stations, public byways, strangers approach and say unbidden things to me owing to my blindness. “I had a dog once,” they’ll say. Or: “I knew a blind girl once.” When I”m feeling charitable I think of their loneliness and let the intrusive moment go. When I’m more vituperative I’ll say anything to get out of the situation. “What dog?” I’ll say. Or: “I don’t like blind people.”

3.

You can only appropriate people you don’t understand. Notice I didn’t say, “insufficiently understand” because even maladroit and speculative thinking is better than incurious meddling. And that’s what ableist appropriation of disability is. Anthony Doerr has written a wholly fraudulent disabled character in his award winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” (a title so stupid “that” alone should have killed it.) His charming blind girl can’t bathe herself though she’s something like fourteen. Her father (who is the author of course) has to help her. I think Doerr should have called the novel “The Blind Girl’s Sponge.”

4.

Now women writers do their own incurious meddling. There’s currently a very popular woman poet who writes of “grotesques” with enough whimsey to satisfy the ableist appetites of the creative writing academy. While I”m at it, let’s be clear that writers who hail from every kind of background write ableist junk. Feeling unimaginative? Just throw in a cripple or two. Two cripples will always be better than one. Beckett understood.

5.

“What’s the problem?” you say? “They’re just books.” You’re right. And Philip Larkin was right: “books are a load of crap.” And there’s more than one problem anyway. But Robinson Crusoe and Friday represent the unassailable comfort of appropriative culture. Novels are seldom progressivist. If you can get away with it, have three cripples in your coffee table book.

6.

In her new book “Believing in Shakespeare: Studies in Longing” Claire McEachern writes: “Even among person, plot, and place there exist differing expectations with respect to believability.” Her premise is that believing in characters is essentially a sacramental act. Read her book. It’s excellent. She writes:

“Persons are also found in nature as well as art; we can believe in each other, as well as in literary characters, the former suggesting the trust we confer on another ’ s purpose, the latter trust in an author ’ s conjuration. Sociobiology, anthropomorphism, and the sciences of empathy all suggest that humans are especially susceptible to each other; as philanthropic organizations know, a cause with a face is more difficult to shrug off than one without. 3 Prosopopoeia has long been the rhetorical figure employed to supernatural or political abstractions, endowing them with human-sized motive properties. Stories whose ultimate concern may be systemic or institutional identities or corporate fortunes (e.g., the fate of a nation, a race, or a culture) typically phrase their exempla in the unit of the individual. There is something particular about the person. Perhaps it is easier to believe in a literary person because less belief is required. People are people persons.”

7.

Prosopopoeia is just the thing, the ingredient you need if you want to turn real people into cartoons. Where disability is concerned Shakespeare was also a cultural appropriator. Caliban’s deformities come from Montaigne’s imagined ugly cannibals but no matter, you’ve got stock characters who will obediently and without controversy represent whatever imperial disdain you need to employ.

It has always been my contention that the first fully realized disabled character in Western literature is Melville’s Ahab. And though he’s not likable, he’s complex and understandable.

Which brings me back to my original point: the average ableist writer doesn’t need to know Ahab at all. He or she watches the cartoons.

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?

George Washington, the Onondaga Nation, and Robert Bly

Its Presidents Day or it was, I can’t remember. The television is trying to sell me a couch by raising a photo of George Washington above a love seat. Because I teach at Syracuse University which stands on land that belongs to the Onondaga Nation I wince. It was Washington who ordered the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in the Finger Lakes. Our principle “founding father” was responsible for a vast human rights crime–what we would now call genocide. I do not make polemical pronouncements. This butchery is a matter of history. Washington called for a “scorched earth” policy which left no village standing and very few survivors. I live among their descendants. I know full well what was done to their ancestors. When I change the channel the TV is trying to sell me a car. Again there’s Washington. I hold my head.

I’ve been reading the newly published “Collected Poems” of Robert Bly. Here are some lines that come to mind:

“Hatred of Men With Black Hair”

“I hear voices praising Tshombe, and the Portuguese
In Angola, these are the men who skinned Little Crow!
We are all their sons, skulking
In back rooms, selling nails with trembling hands!

We distrust every person on earth with black hair;
We send teams to overthrow Chief Joseph’s government;
We train natives to kill Presidents with blowdarts;
We have men loosening the nails on Noah’s Ark.

The State Department floats in the heavy jellies near the bottom
Like exhausted crustaceans, like squids who are confused,
Sending out beams of black light to the open sea,
Fighting their fraternal feeling for the great landlords.

We have violet rays that light up the jungles at night, showing
The friendly populations; we are teaching the children of ritual
To overcome their longing for life, and we send
Sparks of black light that fit the holes in the generals’ eyes.

Underneath all the cement of the Pentagon
There is a drop of Indian blood preserved in snow:
Preserved from the trail of blood that once led away
From the stockade, over the snow, the trail now lost.

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “Collected Poems.” Apple Books.

**

From Washington’s slaughter of the five nations to Trump’s wall…Bly’s poem still reverberates.

Now Washington is trying to sell me a set of home appliances.