As Sarah has already pointed out, all of our readings this week are manifestos. They also do quite a bit of tying together of theoretical threads we’ve been following throughout the course.
The idea I’ve been stuck on most this week is identity. Lennard Davis argues that because disability is a relatively new category of identity, it might “be the identity that links other identities” (14). This is dismodernism, which concept he aims to see succeed or replace postmodernism. In dismodernism, Davis espouses the idea that “difference is what all of us have in common. That identity is not fixed but malleable. That technology is not separate but part of the body. That dependence, not individual independence, is the rule” (26). The notion that identity is not fixed permeates all of our readings this week — I’ll come back to this later.
But first, an excerpt:
The idea of maintaining a category of being just because oppressive people in the past created it so they could exploit a segment of the population, does not make sense. To say that one wants to memorialize that category based on the suffering of people who occupy it makes some sense, but does the memorialization have to take the form of continuing the identity? Even attempts to remake the identity will inevitably end up relying on the categories first used to create the oppression. 19
There are parts of this sub-argument I agree with, it’s true, but mostly I have to ask: would Davis make this point if he were not white? Or not a man? Maybe I’m overreacting, but to say, buck up, leave your oppressed identity behind, it doesn’t do anyone any good! when you are in visible ways aligned with the oppressors of the world (sorry, I don’t know Lennard Davis at all, and maybe he has all kinds of personal history that might justify these remarks) seems incredibly insensitive (to put it mildly). In a way, I’m doing the same thing by making assumptions about Davis personally, but I found this paragraph a bit offensive in its flipness, although I got a lot out of the rest of the chapter.
To back away from identity for a minute: as I made my way through Davis’s discussion, I paused over this sentence: “On the other side of the disability divide, Deaf parents and hearing parents of small stature have the ability to screen for the birth of a hearing child or a normal-sized child and to abort” (22). Now, I’m not a parent, so I don’t feel especially qualified to talk about genetic testing. But it makes me pretty uncomfortable that a child that may not (and that wording is intentional — as far as I know these tests indicate risk, not certainty) fit the arbitrary, exclusive ideal of “normal” might be aborted for that reason alone. (Don’t get me wrong — staunch pro-choicer feminist type here — I just have a problem with the narrative if a “defect” as always bringing tragedy, never possibility.) What’s interesting here, though, is that the lines are a bit blurrier when it comes to the cases Davis mentions. Should Deaf parents be able to choose to have only Deaf children? Is this different from able-bodied parents choosing to have only able-bodied children?
Tobin Siebers has some bones to pick with Davis in “Disability Studies and the Future of Identity Politics.” Here’s where I realized the idea of identity Davis was working with was rather murkier than I’d thought. Siebers writes, “Identity politics is often associated by its critics with minority groups, but it is crucial to a vision of democratic society in its complex entirety” (70). Davis, I’d argue, positions identity politics as the wielding of needless cultural categories by formerly oppressed groups of people. Siebers points out that grouping-by-identity is crucial to democratic society.
As an aside, this point: “the disabled usually lose their civil rights in the kingdom of the well especially once they enter the doctor’s office” (23) brought to mind a very short interview I heard on the CBC the other day. (It was actually a promo for an event, so I couldn’t find a clip to link to, but there’s more information here.) It was promoting the Gateways Project, which advocates for accessible cancer screening for women with disabilities. The woman I heard interviewed has cerebral palsy, and the hospital she went to for a mammogram could not accommodate her unless she got up out of her wheelchair. She was treated with very little compassion from the medical staff, who spoke mostly to the woman’s mother instead of directly to her. It was awful to hear (and I was surprised, which I suppose makes me naive) that doctors, nurses, and technicians didn’t treat her as a person. This is the inherent danger in the clinical gaze.
I’ll leave of Siebers with another question. When discussing “the politics of injury attached to minority identity” he writes, “One of the ramifications of this model is the fear that identity of any kind oppresses the self” (94). What, then, is the difference between identity and self? What Davis calls identity might be more aptly called identification with a group. And although Siebers sees the importance of a diversity of identities, he seems to understand it in a similar way. The difference seems to be that the self is not socially constructed in the same way identity is — but it isn’t clear in what other ways these two might be separate. I had never considered them as such, so I’d be curious to know what others think about this distinction.
Robert McRuer’s epilogue to Crip Theory proposes the idea of global bodies, positioning it in five different contexts, including Davis’s dismodernism. The nugget I want to extract from the epilogue is this: “we need a postidentity politics of sorts, but a postidentity politics that allows us to work together, one that acknowledges the complex and contradictory histories of our various movements, drawing on and learning from those histories rather than transcending them” (202, emphasis added). Here, McRuer articulates my problem with Davis’s argument: we can’t divorce ourselves from our histories and cultural identities, nor should we. As Butler says, nothing can ever truly be reappropriated; the original meaning is always there, even if it’s buried under something new. And that’s not a bad thing! Perhaps what they say about Those who cannot remember the past… I don’t think becoming liberated from the history of an identity is any kind of liberation at all.
I’ll pull a few bits from Donna Haraway as I did from the McRuer, because I think it’s useful to group together some of the points I underlined and drew stars (and wrote WHAT?) beside. Granted, there is a lot in this manifesto I’m just not going to address. I’m not sure I’ve anything useful to say about whether or not the phrase “genetic engineering” connotes “the triumph of phallogocentric lust to recreate the world without the intermediary of fleshy women’s bodies” (4), so I’ll leave that alone. I think the idea of “partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves” (1) is so important. This sums up quite a bit of what bothered me about some of the other readings this week: they positioned the self as static rather than mutable and context-specific. I like this about Haraway, but if I’m honest I find the militance of her writing quite off-putting. I also like Haraway’s discussion of genetic engineering’s effect on our understanding of where our bodies end and everything else (not-our-bodies) begins. We have talked about this before, I think: is the voice part of the body? Should personal space be included in the field of one’s body? And her point that we are one with our technology is a good one: we are, as Stiegler would say, always already reaching beyond ourselves, supplemented by some technical (inorganic) prosthesis.
I’ll end with a quick comment on the Wilson article about the genome. There has been so much hype about this idea in my lifetime, and I’m fascinated by our obsession with reducing humanness to a string of code. We want to make ourselves readable: “Digitalization/alphabetization of the genetic body-text has fostered the much used analogy of DNA as a molecular language where the “letters” are bases, the “words” are genes, and the “book” is the complete genome” (25). When we understand the body this way, the idea of making “corrections” becomes quite easy to swallow. If we think of altering or deleting genes as fixing typos rather than as fundamentally changing a person, or obliterating human variation — great idea, evolution will work really well that way — it seems like no big deal. What I find so interesting about the genome hype is that really smart people don’t see the problem in separating DNA from the rest of the body and from the environment (Wilson cites Richard Lewontin on this front). And of course, it’s a problem. Now if Humanities grad students had been working on mapping the genome, we could have saved everyone a lot of time. Because we know better than anyone that context always, always matters.