Gestural Violence, Philosophy and the Academy

I started reading “the Philosophers” when I was around ten. In a sense there was nothing else to do. Yes I read other things. Poetry, novels, Ian Fleming, instructional manuals. But I had the half-starved mind’s musical anger to know why the body; why the damned consciousness though I didn’t call it that and you shouldn’t either.

Back then I read with a gramophone. Big boxes of recorded books would arrive on my doorstep from the Library of Congress. Those were the days when the classics were available for the blind and I remember reading the following:

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

I didn’t know the term “gestural violence” yet but I was bullied at school and daily.

Gestural violence is a means of bullying. Today I’m a university professor and I see how It occurs in the academy because the agora is patrolled space.

Bullying is epigenetic and happens across the globe. It’s not merely a human trait. Chimpanzees have been known to murder their own. The desire to punish even minor differences crosses borders and species. But human bullying, owns what I will call, for lack of a better term, an architectonic structure, which is entirely political. In his altogether relevant book from the early 1960’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity Erving Goffman wrote:

“The Greeks, who were apparently strong on visual aids, originated the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor—a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places. Later, in Christian times, two layers of metaphor were added to the term: the first referred to bodily signs of holy grace that took the form of eruptive blossoms on the skin; the second, a medical allusion to this religious allusion, referred to bodily signs of physical disorder. Today the term is widely used in something like the original literal sense, but is applied more to the disgrace itself than to the bodily evidence of it.”

Architectonic stigma/bullying comes from constructed and layered significations. The social construction of stigmatized bullying is therefore more sinister than primate bullying. Strictly speaking all of Michel Foucault’s work is concerned with the political enforcement of normality and its accompanying structures of correction. Paris is a good laboratory as it’s still even in its post-modern assembly a late medieval city. Like Kafka’s Prague, Paris is built from disciplinary power, its architectures crafted by coercive persuasion and milieu control. Stigma/bullying where disability is concerned became in Paris a matter of cleaning the streets. In other words we may usefully understand the modern city as a machine of categorization. As Goffman puts it:

“Society establishes the means of categorizing persons and the complement of attributes felt to be ordinary and natural for members of each of these categories. Social settings establish the categories of persons likely to be encountered there. The routines of social intercourse in established settings allow us to deal with anticipated others without special attention or thought. When a stranger comes into our presence, then, first appearances are likely to enable us to anticipate his category and attributes, his “social identity”—to use a term that is better than “social status” because personal attributes such as “honesty” are involved, as well as structural ones, like “occupation.”

We lean on these anticipations that we have, transforming them into normative expectations, into righteously presented demands.”

The ableist believes he or she has the right to her normative expectations; moreover, has the right to be joined only by men or women, boys or girls who sustain those expectations. In sum, all ableism is bullying, relies on stigma and involves what Nietzsche called “will to power”—“My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (–its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on…” (from The Will to Power, s636, Walter Kaufmann, trans.)

I like to think of gestural violence as the will to ableism.

Just two days I ago I found myself riding in an elevator with a professor who has (as he believes) “secretly” labeled my presence problematic at the university. Because we were side by side in a tight space he tried joking with me, peformatively, jocular, and every syllable was just more violence.

Again I thought of Aristotle: “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

I said nothing. See the first quote above.

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:
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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 Susan Sontag, Taste, and Disability Inclusion

Susan Sontag once wrote: “Rules of taste enforce structures of power.” I’ve always liked this quote because as a disability rights activist I know what the late scholar Bill Peace called the problem of “the bad cripple”—the disabled who persist in their demands for inclusion are easily caste as people of bad taste. We’re the ones who spoil the even tenor of the dinner party or the golf course. We trouble the classrooms and the gymnasium. We’re a terrible burden on airplanes.

Two days I ago I sent an email to a faculty colleague saying that a PDF she’d forwarded to a wide range of folks was inaccessible. This colleague was wounded. She wrote me to say she’d tested the PDF and it was accessible on her machine. She felt that I’d mistreated her. She didn’t mean to say it, but I was the bad cripple.

The PDF was entirely unreadable by my screen reading software.

The professor in question talked to her departmental technology specialist who opined that the problem is that I use a Mac and that’s why I couldn’t read it.

The difficulty with this is that it’s entirely inaccurate. The PDF was fully inaccessible. But I became the problem “twice over”—for complaining and then for having the wrong kind of operating system.

I resent this. Moreover I dislike the assumption that I should never state the case, or by extension that I should be exceedingly kind to people who disperse inaccessible materials, as if it’s my job to make everyone feel OK about “the disabled.” I reject this principle. I might once have subscribed to it, say twenty years ago. But it’s not my job anymore.

Not long ago I pointed out that our human rights film festival and our disability film festival are inaccessible to the blind. No effort has ever been made to incorporate basic audio description for movies we show at my university.

When I brought this up a faculty member lectured me about how expense and difficult this would be.

Doing the right thing where disability and inclusion are concerned requires letting go of old cobwebby assumptions about disability accommodations, expectations, and the use of taste to enforce dominant power structures.

I’m sorry I hurt the faculty member’s feelings about the inaccessible PDF. She thought she was doing the right thing by checking it. The problem is that our university doesn’t have a syncretic and workable system for assuring that anything we do is accessible.

Not long ago we purchased an online program to educate staff about sexual harassment But the university never adequately tested the product and it was in fact inaccessible.

As a disabled faculty member I feel these things deeply.

It’s my hope that we’re heading in a better direction.

It’s my hope that in what remains of my career I’ll be freed from having to be the bad cripple.

My guide dog just looked at me as if to say “good luck with that.”

As Jimmy Hoffa Dies

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–July 30, 1975

2:00 pm. Hoffa sits in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox Italian Restaurant in Detroit and waits for his contact. The day is hot. Hoffa keeps the windows of his Pontiac open. He likes air conditioning but he isn’t going to pay for the gas. Though he’s been trying to quit he smokes a Pall Mall. He’s fucked: a man at the mercy of Gerald Ford and the Mafia and a hundred little fuckers every one of them dangerous. He smokes.

2:00 pm. Kuusisto sits on a roof in Geneva, New York listening to Billie Holiday. He’s 20 and blind and tiny crazed. He’s recently been in a mental hospital but now he’s alone and loves the line: “God bless the child that’s got his own”. He feels he understands it. He lights a joint wrapped in yellow wheat paper.

2:05 pm. Hoffa is agitated. No sign of anyone. He goes into the restaurant and gets some change from a waiter and phones a lieutenant. He blows off steam.

2:05 pm. Kuusisto is thinking about Holiday’s vocal energy vs. Leadbelly’s. On the Alan Lomax recordings he hears all the particles of Mr. Ledbetter’s body shouting together. Holiday still has this pain but she’s also found joy in emptiness.

2:08 pm. Hoffa is only aware of the apparent insult, not of the coming threat.

2:08 pm. Kuusisto turns the record over.