The Forehead Egg, Biopolitics, Disability

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right.

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant.

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized.

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today. I like the eggs. Yeah you can call me Estragon.




Ableism in the Academy, Thoughts on Moliere

Ableism, the experience of it, requires the French adjective écœurante —for disability discrimination is simultaneously heartless and sickening. I recall the professor of English at the University of Iowa who told me my blindness would preclude me from being in his “famous” graduate class on Charles Olson. Another professor snickered when I said I was reading books on tape. When I protested the chairman of the English department said I was a whiner and complainer. I wept alone in the Men’s room. My path forward to a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa was stymied. This was a full six years before the ADA was signed into law. Who was I to imagine a place at the agora’s marble stump?

I had an MFA degree from the creative writing program at that same university and I just went ahead and wrote books and sometimes appeared on radio and television and I wrote for big magazines and over time I received tenure at The Ohio State University. Later I went back to teach at Iowa despite my earlier experience and these days I’m at Syracuse. I’m a survivor of sorts. I’m a blind professor. The odds were never in my favor. Somewhere along the way I began thinking of Moliere in my private moments and I laughed because after all, every human occasion is comical and Moliere recognized the comedic types one encounters in closed societies better than anyone before or since.

It doesn’t really matter what institution of higher education you’re at, if you’re disabled you’ll meet the following Moliere-esque figures. The heartless and sickening ye will always have with ye if you trek onto a college campus. You’re more likely to spot them first if you hail from a historically marginalized background however, the ecoeurantists are more prone to blab at you if you’re disabled, especially behind closed doors. Ableists love closed doors. All bigots love closed doors.

The “Tartuffe” is an administrator, usually a dean or provost who will tell you with affected gestures that he, she, they, what have you, cares a great deal about disability and then, despite the fact a disabled person has outlined a genuine problem, never helps out.

The “Harpagon” is also an administrator, but he, she, they, can also be a faculty member. The Harpagon is driven by rhetorics of cheapness. It will cost too much to retrofit this bathroom, classroom, syllabus, website, etc. If the Harpagon is a professor he, she, they, generally drives a nice car.

Statue du Commandeur: a rigid, punctilious, puritanical college president—“this is the way we’ve always done it. If we changed things for you, we’d have to change things for everybody. Yes, it certainly must be hard…” See:

The Geronte: when his son is kidnapped he says: “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (What in the deuce did he want to go on that galley for?” In other words, he brought this upon himself. “Really, shouldn’t you try something easier? I could have told you.”

These are the principle types of ableists. I invite you to add your own.

The one thing they have in common besides a privileged and thoroughly unexamined attachment to the idea that education is a race requiring stamina and deprivation, is that they all genuinely believe accommodations are a kind of vanity.


Dogs, Hats, and Faith

As the new year dawns I’m doing my best—that is, I’m drinking coffee. And since I went to bed last night at 9:30 (at the insistence of a small dog who thought it was the right thing when the outside temperature was 5 degrees Fahrenheit) well because of this I’m wide awake sans hangover.

To be fair the dog didn’t make me go to bed. It’s good to distrust people who say dogs make them do anything other than feeding them and taking them outside. I went to bed early because it seemed like a good idea.

I’ve been taking antidepressants for over twenty years. They help me stay “in the game” but they also make me tired at night and that’s just the way it is. By taking Celexa I live on dog time. Early to bed, early to rise. I’m Ben Franklin with pills and dogs.

What are dogs and antidepressants for? I imagine they’re about hope. Even facing the aborning year which cannot be promising, what with the looting of the planet, corporatized warfare, slavish and corrupt politicians of every stripe, human trafficking, the new slavery, which is old slavery tied to offshore banking—I’ll stop in a moment—even with the assault on the poor, the infirm—here I am again tossing my moth eaten chapeau onto a fountain of hope knowing one of my two dogs will retrieve it.

Dogs teach us to put our wet hats on again.

They teach us to avoid rising to the level of our expectations, but fall to the level of our training, as Archilochus would have it and which I’ve always taken to mean “get on with it brother.”

The wet hat has some toothmarks.

Lots of people sneer at hope. It is for one thing akin to faith and nothing gets kicked more often than faith, even the faithful do it.

I agree with Maxine Hong Kingston: “In a time of destruction, create something.”

Dogs say wet hats are better than no hats.

Dogs say you can indeed get there from here.

Dogs say even wearing that hat you’re not as bad as you appear.

Or they say, well, you might be as bad as you appear—so throw your hat again and we’ll bring it back. You can try for a new look.

A hat damp with hope is still a hat.

A damp hat is expectation halved, still wearable.

The hat your dog brings means you have a plan.

My Guide Dog is Dreaming

Her name is Caitlyn and she’s a yellow Labrador. Ten minutes ago she was eating her breakfast and now, curled on her bed, she’s talking in her sleep. It’s winter and very cold in Syracuse, New York and my canine pal has managed to take sustenance and go back to sleep in record time. 

Dogs found us thirty thousand years ago. One theory about this is that they coveted our midden heaps and then they stuck around. I won’t argue for or against this, save to say it’s possible dogs believed we were interesting and they liked us better than we liked ourselves. In turn they helped us hunt and stave off intruders. 

A dog dreaming by the fire is an ancient matter. A dog dreaming is a sign of love between us. Simple to say but most people don’t understand this. 

Love has many expressions. 

Well, It’s a Living

So you’re disabled. You get a job after years. You plant seeds in snow. It’s not much of a job but it turns out to be steady. The seeds are small and blue—a friend jokes, says they look like “viagra tablets” and then you see they do like like viagra tablets though you’ve never actually had first hand experience with the stuff. The supervisor looks like a malevolent version of Mr. Rogers and he comes around periodically on one of those All Terrain Vehicles and says you’re not pushing the seeds deep enough into the snowbanks. So, “ahem,” you say, adding: “I can’t really reach deep into the snow because I’m riding a wheelchair you see…” Mr. Rogers says, “I’m riding an All Terrain Vehicle” and I can push blue seeds into the snowy sod, and he leans over and pokes two or three viagra into a snow man’s belly button. Then he whisks away in a cloud of exhaust. You never get the chance to explain that the average wheelchair bears no resemblance to an ATV and that most wheelchair users can’t lean to their sides to touch the ground. For Mr. Rogers, it’s enough that you both have wheels. And you never get to point out that planting blue seeds in snow is non-productive work. Talk about alienation! You’re separated from the means of production, planting fungal seeds above the arctic circle.

The AWP, Academic Creative Writing, and the Disabling Ethic of Higher Ed

By now I’ve written a good deal about what it’s like to be disabled and work in higher education. Why return to the subject? What more could I possibly say? First off there’s an important new book “forthcoming” from University of Michigan Press by Jay Dolmage entitled “Academic Ableism” which (from the website): “brings together disability studies and institutional critique to recognize the ways that disability is composed in and by higher education, and rewrites the spaces, times, and economies of disability in higher education to place disability front and center.  For too long, argues Jay Timothy Dolmage, disability has been constructed as the antithesis of higher education, often positioned as a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved. The ethic of higher education encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness, even as we gesture toward the value of diversity and innovation. Examining everything from campus accommodation processes, to architecture, to popular films about college life, Dolmage argues that disability is central to higher education, and that building more inclusive schools allows better education for all.”

Yes disability is enacted on university campuses as the antithesis of higher education. It’s not merely “a distraction, a drain, a problem to be solved” (though arguably these ableist perturbations remain true) but also a de facto bearding of the noble lion as disablement requires vigorous reexaminations of pedagogy, administrative systems, institutional histories, faculty preparedness, information technology, and what is meant by cultural inclusion. Colleges that do not do these things are most often participating in what Professor Dolmage calls the ethic of higher ed. I should know: I’ve been stigmatized repeatedly throughout my career because my blindness hints at intellectual, mental or physical weakness. I still remember the graduate student in creative writing at Ohio State who dropped my nonfiction writing workshop because I was asking students to read their work aloud. My assistive technology hadn’t arrived yet. My mother died on the first day of class. I invented my time pressed accommodation and gave those students the benefit of twenty years of writing and reading. The woman who quit told a senior faculty member that I was a lousy teacher. Hearing her fellow students read was beneath her. And clearly I wasn’t capable of running a workshop. That student effectively undermined much of my subsequent career at OSU. Although I did receive tenure and ultimately went on to receive tenure at the U of Iowa and Syracuse, the dog whistle followed. It follows because of blindness. The blind, who must do everything differently, are suspect. Are they really reading? (It’s only been 200 years since the blind were conceived of as literate. You shouldn’t think for a minute that old prejudices have vanished. Strangers on public buses offer to pray for me; give me money; imagine I’m destitute.)

The “ethic” is false as practiced and I’ve been put in mind of this all over again by recent developments at the AWP, (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) the sponsor of the nation’s biggest academic creative writing conference. Each year they manage to humiliate disabled writers by failing to provide basic accommodations, and each year they receive criticism for this, as well as merited approbation for a lackluster commitment to featuring disability related writing at their conference. These are just criticisms and there’s no denying it.

What the AWP “has” is the capacity to stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual, mental, or physical weakness. After fumbling badly with accessibility at their 2017 conference in Washington, DC the leadership of the conference hired a consultant to help them tackle the problem. (Football imagery intentional.) Now the organization has put out the following statement to address the ongoing concern that there’s not enough recognition of disability writing: “We believe the current scope of the conference strikes the best balance between inclusion and good, selective programming.”

Talk about valorization of accentuated taste (read perturbations regarding ability).

Why return to the subject?

I return because I heard a writer at AWP say “that’s not germane to me” when told of a panel on disability and nonfiction writing.

I return because my own university is still struggling to admit the disabled have appropriate and necessary opinions about accessibility problems they continue to encounter on campus.

I return since labels are for jars and not people.

I come back again because most campus accommodation processes are demeaning, stuck all over with red tape, and yes, their very presence signals to faculty and college administrators that the 19th century model of sequestering the disabled is still OK.

And I return because today, right now, even as I’m typing, there are students and faculty and staff with hidden disabilities who are scared as hell to disclose them at their respective colleges and universities.

I can’t convince them they shouldn’t be.

The disabled walk in the same sunlight, even beside the ivory tower.

Perhaps, just maybe we can stop pretending they are “other” and their talents are stealing the goodies from the strapping, healthy taste makers.


I’ve Got a Secret

I take inventories of my head, patrolling it, though I’m no cop. There are ugly notions inside me and “Holy Gilles DeLeuze Batman!” they’re slick, fast as minnows—my scrutinizer can hardly catch them, though sometimes I capture one old, clotted, loathsome, prejudicial idee fixe and raise it to the light.

Recently I watched a vintage TV game show—“I’ve Got a Secret” from 1961. I remembered the damned thing though I was six when the program first aired. I watched it for twenty minutes. It was benign and faintly amusing. A homely “not ready for prime time” contestant appeared and whispered her secret to Garry Moore the emcee while the audience saw it on screen. Panelists then tried to ferret out the secret by asking yes or no questions. Tame enough.

Suddenly I was awash in sadness—clobbered by it. You might think I was victimized by middle class white American nostalgia but that wasn’t it. I wasn’t sorry for lost innocence, either my own or the nation’s. It was my ugliness I saw.

I liked that world of Cleanliness capital “C”—the witty panelists and TV host resembling urbane cocktail guests, not a mean drunk in the lot. I felt my own affection for banality. I couldn’t blink it away. I liked the sanitized, irreproachable steadfastness of TV Land.

It was bad news. The Head Patrol had returned to base with a culprit in tow—my starchy, middle brow affection like a shoplifter arrested British style, his hands cuffed in front since he’s not that dangerous.

How to blink this away? Is it plausible I’ve no nuance or scruple? I genuinely liked the cheap TV studio and the clubby, ambient aura of normalcy, everyone wearing his or her Sunday best. I loved it that the secrets weren’t lurid. Understanding how much I liked “I’ve Got a Secret” was a train wreck for my sense of irony and discernment. It pleased me immensely that the first contestant was the only female “plasterer” in the United States.

When partaking of nostalgia television it’s easy to say “those were the days” without a moue of disgust. Even the most detestable treacle seems innocent—Ozzie and Harriet; Father Knows Best—or the happy vulgarity of a live dancer selling deodorant.

There’s not help for it. I too can be tricked into affection for falsehoods. I’m better off admitting it.

Still I peered behind the curtain of “I’ve Got a Secret” just to see who the panelists actually were. I knew the names of course: Bess Myerson, a former Miss America, Bill Cullen, a perennial game show host for nearly forty years, Henry Morgan, whose real name was Henry Lerner Van Ost Jr., a witty man who was dismayed television would have him, Betsy Palmer, a talented actress whose father was an immigrant chemist from Czechoslovakia named Rudolph Vincent Hrunek—I knew their names but I didn’t know just how much television had disguised their lives. “I should have known,” I thought. And I should have known disability lurked just off stage. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Brenda Brueggemann once observed: “Disability is everywhere in culture–from Oedipus to the Human Genome Project–once critics know how to look for it.” Turns out “I’ve Got a Secret” had a disability secret.

Bill Cullen was a regular on the show and on many other TV and radio programs but despite his notoriety it seems the general public had no idea that he was a polio survivor. According to Wikipedia he contracted poliomyelitis in 1921 when he was 18 months old. His polio left him with lifelong ambulatory difficulties. Here’s what the Wikipedia entry says:

His physical disabilities were—and largely remain—unknown to the general public, due in large part to directors taking great care to limit the extent that Cullen was shown walking on camera. Each show’s set was designed to accommodate Cullen’s limited range of motion; the podiums, game boards, props, and any physical movements by contestants were arranged so that Cullen could, for the most part, remain stationary. Rather than the grand entrance common for most game show hosts, Cullen began each show either already seated, or hidden on set behind a nearby prop so he would only have to take a minimum number of steps to his podium. Cullen always sat in a chair while hosting, even on shows where the other participants stood. Similar accommodations were made when he appeared as a guest on other game shows.

This is of course F.D.R.’s version of polio, a condition disguised as much as possible in public. Here’s where I had to sit up and take notice. Wikipedia continues:

As a consequence of these arrangements, many of Cullen’s peers were likewise unaware of his disability, which occasionally led to awkward situations. In the August 2010 issue of GQ under the heading “Epic Tales of Embarrassment”, Mel Brooks related the following story to writer Steve Heisler:   

The week of October 17–21 in 1966—that would make me about 40—was a special celebrity week on Eye Guess. Bill Cullen was the host. The game was very similar to Concentration. I was teamed up with Julia Meade. Remember her? Actress, very pretty young lady, blonde… Okay, never mind. I don’t think I won, but I did get the take-home game. Anyway, the show is over, and I start walking toward the podium to say good night to Bill, to thank him for having me on. He starts coming toward me cross-stage, and I don’t know what he’s doing. His feet are flopping. His hands are flying everywhere. He’s doing this kind of wacky walk-of-the-unfortunates that Jerry Lewis used to do. So I figured, what the hell, I’ll join him. I start doing, I dunno, this multiple-sclerosis walk, flapping my arms and doing the Milton Berle cross legs—my own Jerry Lewis impression… And Julia is whispering, “No! He’s crippled, Mel!” I don’t even hear her. Finally we meet in the middle, we hug, and he says to me, “You know, you’re the only comic who’s ever had the nerve to make fun of my crippled walk. Everyone’s so careful, it makes me feel even worse.” And I realize, Oh, my God, this guy is really crippled! It was my worst moment — and if you weren’t me, probably the funniest thing that ever happened.

Funny or not it’s a secret within a secret since taped studio television is a both a managed environment where all human encounters are essentially choreographed, or in Cullen’s case, choreo-erased. Once the disabled are erased within a broadcast environment it’s impossible for Brooks to imagine Bill Cullen’s polio as anything other than shtick. Brooks of course doesn’t get it. It’s not his worst moment. It’s a signature of television. Crippled actors are still today fighting for their places before the cameras.

I’ve got a secret indeed.