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 

What’s the Use of Having a Body if It’s Always Just a Map?

Disability Studies has embraced metonymy and you may not care. After all it is an academic field, interdisciplinary certainly, but largely an abstruse means of theorizing what bodies are and how they function and do not function in societies devoted to normalcy. By metonymy I mean the body now stands for vast arrangements. Disability Studies has grown to conceive of the body as a colonized thing; the body as geography; disabled bodies are occupied countries.

**

Of course we’re all property of some kind. It’s as true under capitalism as communism and there’s no end in sight. When you’re little you’re the property of your parents and if you lose them you become the property of the state. Some people are more “of” property than others: the illusion that they are not is too costly to purchase.

**

I don’t know if its liberating to think of the disabled body as colonized space. The idea is richly polemical but also against reason. You have nothing to lose but your chains becomes “once you lose your chains there will be more chains because your body has no corporeal independence from the manufacture of chains.” I chose not to believe this.

**

Who is paying for the illusion we are always in chains? The idea of independence is imagined by many Disability Studies scholars as being illusory. There’s no freedom within nation states or under neoliberal economies.

**

That this is tautological and prescriptive is one reason why representing bodies as failed states or colonized regions is seductive. My blindness is a conditioned program. I’m doubly blinded by both the pejorative value of sight loss and by the illusion I can ever achieve my own value. The very notion that one might achieve subjective satisfaction of any kind is foolish. Let us richly theorize the fool’s errand.

**

I’ve lately talked with several disability studies students who can’t imagine uncathected lives.Anything that smacks of personal choice, autonomy, potential happiness, independence, is to them just a neoliberal trap. Everything is a trap. We’re all colonized.

**

As a poet I know every poem is an experiment—a life experiment. Taken this way, life is outside of ideological and proscriptive failure.

There are so many sexy ways to sell hopelessness.

I like poems to be both sexy and true.

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 

Tiresias My Lady-Fellow

It’s not likely I’ll ever get away from him. He’s “they”—mythically gender fluid—one of the incitements for his subsequent suffering as Greek myth is not only polysemous it’s ingrown in its cruelties. I once told a college class every Greek myth is an ingrown hair in the psyche. I’ve no reason to change my mind.

Tiresias made they fateful mistake agreeing to referee a divine game of sex trivia as high on Mt. Olympus Zeus and his wife Hera were arguing whether men or women gain more sexual satisfaction from heteronormative intercourse—or so one must presume—the story is a bit sparse on the details. We also know Tiresias was long prone to mistakes where the gods and goddesses were concerned for in a prior episode he was transformed into a woman by Hera because he struck a pair of copulating snakes with a stick. Hera loved snakes or at least copulating snakes and so the story is an ingrown hair. Once he became a woman he was forced to serve as one of Hera’s handmaidens.

Tiresias was the perfect “go to” when the matter of comparative gender orgasm satisfaction came up.

**

His second mistake was saying women have more fun in the sack because in her fury Hera blinded him.

One of the many ways to go blind in Ancient Greece was telling the truth as you understood it.

Once blind, Zeus took pity on Tiresias and gifted him with prophecy.

In Ancient Greece you could be blind and mystical.

I’ll never get away from Mystic T.

I’ll never get away from the presumption that any talent I may possess is a compensatory gift from the gods.

I’ll never get over the narrative of divine punishment. My blindness—all blindness—must owe something to cosmic missteps.

I’ll certainly never get over the idea disability is both a misfortune and a gift. Better I think to say all life functions this way. Better to let blind and gender fluid beings go about their business. Better to stop throwing superstitions at real humans.

But I cannot shake Tiresias.

In a taxi cab a driver tells me I must have done something to displease god.

“It’s wonderful you write so well,” says a woman in a public library, “it must take away some of the hurt.”

I imagine the private life of Tiresias, blind, fondling they sensitive breasts, alone for just a moment, and seeing that his fucked up story would last for all of history.

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 

What Does It Avail?

Hope is the thing with feathers. And then, wind up, clear skies, hope is the horse who rolls in mud. If you’re looking for optimism don’t forget the mud.

**

You say to a child “I’m glad you’re along with me” if you’re a loving parent. You stop a lot and admire the simplest and oddest things.

**

I had a dream last night with Abraham Lincoln in it. He floated there like a balloon. He was, as in life, sad and kind. I woke happy. That’s the thing: I woke happy to think of Lincoln. And I thought of Walt Whitman who loved Abe. And I was happy to think of Whitman.

**

I’m a Christian. Lefty Episcopal. No one thinks of happiness as a Christian ingredient. But I’m happy believing in sacrifice and meaning–ultimate meaning. In this way I imagine satisfaction in serving others. According to a couple of geneticists I know, I was born this way. “Exactly,” I say.

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 

The Burdens of Ableism

How many burdens do you carry daily? If I ask myself this question I admit I don’t know the answer for myself. It’s like asking “what should I be doing?” It’s a fool’s game.

Here’s the problem: I carry some baggage because I’m disabled. “No big deal,” says the heart (which I’m told sits reliably in the center of the chest and not to the right hand side as depicted in cartoons.)

The heart is optimistic. It knows it must be. Every pulse beat is optimism.

Now the brain is different. It’s read Duns Scotus and Neruda and Kafka and Hannah Arendt and Frederic Jameson and “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” and at least a thousand books on disability and who knows how much gloomy nonfiction—so the brain is disposed to contrarian thinking whenever joy comes up.

Alas my brain is more than a little bit like my Finnish grandmother.

Her name was Siiri and unlike her Apple namesake she was gloomy. She couldn’t help it. She was very Lutheran and her husband was a minister during the Great Depression and they’d come to the U.S. to escape hunger and why wouldn’t you become cautionary and somber in the face of a world of gravity and scarcity?

I don’t know about you but I’ll take gloom over despair. I know about this. I have depression as well as vision loss. I ride two horses, one black and the other white. Or something like that. Maybe I’m a shark with two brains: one of appetite and the other of more appetite.

I don’t know as much about the mysteries of consciousness as I pretend.

But I know this: the burdens I carry are the burdens of others.

If the subject is disability, well, I speak up for disabled students and staff who struggle to acquire basic accommodations both in my own workplace and around the world.

Burden number one: this can make me unpopular. As with racism or misogyny or homophobia the advocate can be characterized as a malcontent almost instantly.

I’ve never completely gotten used to this. The “this” being disapprobation for speaking out against ableism.

I read as much as I can by scholars and poets of color; gay and trans writers; black writers; women writers. And yes, men. I’ve yet to find anyone who’s more deep tissue wise than Walt Whitman.

Last week I participated in a live online town hall discussion about service animals. In the Q &A period several apparently non-disabled questioners asked things phrased thusly:

“Do we have to?”

As in “OK, service animals are legally allowed to enter my space, but can’t we tell those darned blind people where they are to make their dogs relieve themselves?” Or: “OK, a child with a service dog comes to public school—do we have to help that child?” (As if being disabled requires extraordinary extra help; as if a disabled child is a burden.)

I became upset.

I said the following:

“I went to public school before the ADA. I have been told by teachers and school administrators that I’m inconvenient; or worse—that I don’t belong.”

“Frankly, I hope there’s a room in Hell for school administrators where they’ll get to sit throughout eternity with Joseph Stalin, Richard Nixon, and the man who invented the roach motel.”

Then I signed off.

I’ll never not be offended by ableism.

I’ll never sanction the winks.

Just try those questions out if you substitute race or gender or sexual orientation for disability.

How many burdens do any of us carry?

They’re much lighter when we hold them up to scrutiny.

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 

G.K. Chesterton’s Free Thinking

There should be a place in the public’s mind for G.K, Chesterton. The great Victorian writer understood better than most that absurdity and discernment are intellectual bulwarks against tyranny. He wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” Let’s be clear: poets are mysteriously silent about many things.

I was yesterday joking with a friend, a poet, who was lamenting a tendency in contemporary verse—how does one put it? The kind of poem where the poet tells us someone has been murdered right before his or her or they eyes and then goes on to tell us what’s for breakfast.
The personal is political until it isn’t. In other words: claiming a political life isn’t the same as living one.

Chesterton: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

What a relief he often is.

“The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”

**

A disabled poet I know thinks the entire able bodied civilization despises the cripples. She’s right of course. We rely on social programs, trouble the architects, bother administrators charged with the enforcement of normalcy. There just ain’t no way around it, the lame and the halt are trouble.

Chesterton; “Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly,”

I’m for the democratic ideal of wrongness. This is where true equality resides.

Perhaps my favorite Chesterton quote is this one:

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.”

One is reminded of the late poet James Tate who wrote:

“Curses on those who do or do not take dope.”

**

Chesterton was a fierce opponent of eugenics. He famously said:

“There exists today a scheme of action, a school of thought, as collective and unmistakable as any of those by whose grouping alone we can make any outline of history. It is as firm a fact as the Oxford Movement, or the Puritans of the Long Parliament; or the Jansenists; or the Jesuits. It is a thing that can be pointed out; it is a thing that can be discussed; and it is a thing that can still be destroyed. It is called for convenience “Eugenics”; and that it ought to be destroyed I propose to prove in the pages that follow. I know that it means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called “The Gracious Ones.””

Excerpt From: “Eugenics and Other Evils.” Apple Books.

Who takes advantage of ambiguity in our time?

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.