Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Introduction to Disability Studies with David Mitchell

"Disability exists at the fraught intersection 
of environments, bodies, and beliefs."
David Mitchell

The Introduction to Disability Studies
premiered at the George Washington University
in the Fall 2013, led by Prof. David Mitchell
MW 12:45-2:00. Room: 1957 E Street, Room 111

Unsettling Foundations

When our new faculty member Prof. David Mitchell and his trans* graduate assistant (me) rolled into the classroom in September, it is hard to guess what the students' expectations were for an Introduction to Disability Studies and how they might already have begun to be transformed. Upon entering, one of the first things we discussed was the inaccessibility of the many tiered class-room. 

While we went through the syllabus, we opened up each point into a full discussion of what it is we mean when we come together to discuss disability studies. Together we developed goals for the course to analyze disability:

  • as aesthetics (the ways that some bodies make other bodies feel when sharing space), 
  • politics (social forces that threaten to devalue some bodies on behalf of other bodies), 
  • and systemic alternatives (how do disabled lives differ and, therefore, offer glimpses into other ways of being human). 

The project of the first several days was to introduce the students not simply to a new field of thought, as something separate and pre-existing, but to establish a way of thinking that actively involves them in the production of disability studies.

This was accomplished through what I would describe as a take on the Socratic Method. Students found themselves as the primary texts and speakers in the class-room, questioned for their knowledge and position. Once a tentative route was offered by the class, the readings and expertise of the instructors would help them down the path.

This methodology led us to work through the history of disability in the late medieval period with the enclosure of Teresa de Cartagena, a 15th century deaf noble-woman taken from a life at a university and confined to a convent where she wrote the Grove of the Infirm, to the 20th century with the development of eugenic technologies of confinement and the eradication of bodily difference:

  • Statistics: Grading "Health" via a Bell Curve
  • Migrations: Controlling Nodes of Access & Exclusion
  • Urbanization: Exploiting Mass Labor Populations
  • Industrial Revolutions: Standardizing "Valuable" Work and "Productive" Bodies (Human-Cog Theory: Interchangeable Parts = Interchangeable Workers)
  • Institutionalization: Closing-off Environments

In time the students began to say, "oh but doesn't that go too far?" and "well, what about this?" Then the counter-arguments and questions would arise from the students to work against their initial hypotheses.

Once this pattern was developed between the students, the instructors and the theorists (from the Disability Studies Reader), we began to stretch our muscles with two novels: Good Kings, Bad Kings, and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, as well as a variety of independent films.

"þæt wæs god cyning!"
(That was a good king!)

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum became our touch-stone for the month of October as we explored topics of madness, representation, sexuality, and environment.

Detailing a privatized assisted living facility in Chicago, the Illinois Leaning and Life-Skills Center (ILLC), Nussbaum's book imagined the lives of people caught in the industry of marking and managing bodily difference. The students came to see that disability is not simply what is being contained, but is what does the management. 

Students asked: Why is it that this person in a wheelchair works the facility while these people in wheelchairs are being confined? Why is this sexuality (and queer gender) ignored, punished, or used to control the patients?

What is the difference between "Jimmie," a butch lesbian worker at the ILLC, going to a queer club (full of butches, femmes, transwomen & drag queens), a space where people come together and struggle with...

  • Mutual Devaluation
  • The Danger of the "We"
  • The Provision of Social Space in Which Differentiation Can Occur

... and "Yessenia's" experience of being brought to the ILLC full of distinct tools for fixing identity positions?

  • Coercive Lock-Ups
  • Restraints
  • Medication
  • Sexual Prohibition

These questions brought us to begin destabilizing the terms of disability that we had been working with throughout the semester: impairment, disability, homosexual, gay, feminist, queer, crip. How might identification (the active association between club attendants) and identity (the administrative labeling of bodies) work as tangential but conflicting processes?

Tracing these intersections not only allowed us to see how disability participates in a host of other identities, but demonstrates how the mechanisms that operate disability in the world are present in spaces seemingly devoid of it. This networking and intersectional management of bodies produces many advantages for corporations such as the ILLC:

  • making it difficult to locate abuse in any particular place, 
  • creating the ability for deniability, 
  • allowing no one person to have the full picture, 
  • making the data itself shifting and inexact
  • causing alienation between potential alliances
  • raising up one group to administrate another

Neo-Liberalism is a very adaptive network of social relations. The very intersections and contingencies which allow for resistance and subversive sub-cultures to form, can be deployed to defend the system from attack. It is not enough then to find sexuality folding into disability and impairment being read into race or gender, our critical acts need a certain radical inclusiveness if they are going to sustain the fight on so many fronts. We need to not simply reject an answer, but learn how to reject the very premise of a host of questions that seek to fix identity and position bodies against one another.

Imagining Alternatives

With our mode of discourse and critical questions in hand, we proceeded to look at the very mechanisms by which we have been engaging in Disability Studies: persons and text.

"What if your primary impairment was a lack of access to other humans?" asked Prof. Mitchell. How does the University and the classroom we work in participate in the confinement of certain bodies from society, not only by who it brings in to work the environment but by all those it excludes? This brought us to explore our next section on Autism led theory.

From late October into November, revving up on questioning the absent presences and operations of disability hidden in plain sight, our seminar was visited by writer and scholar Michael Berube who helped guide our discussion on Autism.

Working on the edge of our critical theory, Berube called on us to not become complacent in our study of disability. If we grasp at the terminology currently on the forefront of medical or social knowledge about Autism (for instance) we will be trying to hit a moving target. No two people on the Autism spectrum are the same and the very tests that determine their disability are suspect, argued Berube. If the project of Autism is to be productive, then we need to turn our investigation back on ourselves, to see what propels the project of trying to distinguish these lives from others. We need to remain ever suspicious of our own participation in the conversation.

This lecture helped us work through the next section of the seminar, focusing on the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon. Written from the perspective of a boy located on the spectrum, the Curious Incident follows him as he explores the death of a local dog, what happened to his mother, and his relationship to his community.

The style of Haddon's writing attempts to translate an experience of Autism for the reader, using short and detail-rich descriptions of events. This allowed students to put their rich theoretical tools into practice with literary criticism; attending not only to questions of "why" but the "how." Living within the world of the text, we developed a sense of what moves Christopher through the story:

  • Avoidance of Emotional Cues
  • Hyper Awareness of Surroundings (Hyper Sensitivity), Flooding the brain with too much information to process.
  • Cross-Species Identification (enjoying other bodies and modes of relation outside the norm)
  • Frustrated human contact (Body Language/Metaphors)
  • Regimented Thinking

As a work of fiction, the Curious incident does more than simply describe a state of affairs, but presents us with an imagined world full of alternative spaces with alternative rules. Understood in the context of Christopher's environment, he possesses a disability. Over the novel, Christopher helps to imagine other contexts where his body's distinct traits would make him super-able:

  • Sub-cultural niches
  • Flying through the galaxy on a space-ship
  • Private areas in the shed or boiler-room
  • Post-Apocalypse, in a world without eye-contact
  • Deep in the darkness of the sea

Christopher's story brought us back from considering disability in critical theory to disability in the body to disability in the environment. Each aspect ties into one another, but does different work at each point. Do we need to keep working at the edge of our how we talk about disability? Do we need to keep attending to the details of individual experience? Do we need to remember and rebuild the environments that structure how and who gets to have these conversations? Yes, yes, and yes. Even as the students' skills began to show, the work continues.

Bringing it Home

Going through the circuit of environments, bodies and beliefs, the final section of the seminar brought the lessons home for the students. From late November into December, the students watched a series of independent films, read personal accounts and worked on their own disability narrative.

Watching films by and about people living under the tent of disability, the students became familiar with a variety of methods of narrating person experiences. Among the many films, What It's Like to be My Mother helped students imagine shifts in perspective, from voyeur to exhibitionism, from manager to managed, from child to parent. I'm In Away from Here offered a variety of non-verbal story-telling methods that told a story as much through the points where connections are refused as where they are made.

Beyond film, we also looked at the personal narratives of Michael Berube's "Life as We Know It" and Eli Clare's "Stones in my Pocket, Stone in my Heart." Students became at ease with uneasiness, learning through the writers that struggling with how to tell a story and make sense of events can be an affective way of narrating personal experience; and may be more true to life than attempting to pin down events with over-determined frames.

Students were then challenged to write their own narratives of disability, drawing on experience and knowledge from outside course texts. Bringing their own voices into the conversation, students wrestled with the pathos, lack of clear reason, and overwhelming social and linguistic demands for putting life into words. How different the conversation with the students became when disability turned from something on the page or on the screen to something in their day to day!

Bringing the semester to a close, students shared their final term paper projects in class before disappearing into the mists and shadows of writing. Touching base with the students and with each other, Prof. Mitchell and I reflected on where we have been over the semester and what it means now that the class has been "introduced to disability studies." How many different trajectories each person has taken! The difference within a community and the diversity of reactions to a shared experience never ceases to amaze. 


On a personal note, my favorite part of being the graduate assistant to this seminar was the roll back from class to Rome Hall where final details of class administration would happen. In between, we would digest the banquet of thoughts that were generated in class each day. What this simple act of taking time and touching base underlined for me was how a seminar caused us to process and re-process things; bringing many things we thought were settled into new life.

Such conversations can also work help develop the dizzying play of professional and personal particularities. How do we listen to our different intelligences and instincts to produce better work and work that produces a better life? In many respects, while I was welcoming Prof. Mitchell to the GWU faculty, he in many ways was helping to welcome me into the world of academic life. It may be a bit sentimental to end simply with appreciation and thanks, but I have long agreed with Maya Angelou when she said "People will forget what you said, People will forget what you did, But people will never forget how you made them feel."

Thanks David!


[David Mitchell welcomes Michael Berube to the seminar]

"Mr. Wells' point was this. That we cannot be certain about the inheritance of health, because health is not a quality...
not the result of fixing one steady thing to a second steady thing; but what will happen when one toppling and dizzy equilibrium crashes into another."

GK Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pause || Play >> the Mezripatra Queer Film Festival

"Stop! Now! What's that sound?
Everybody look! What's going down?"
Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth

The Mezripatra Queer Film Festival
took place between 7-20 November 2013
in Prague, the Czech Republic

Pause || Pause

Pausing after a difficult year, I'm replaying some of the moments that may fall through the cracks without more reflection and refraction. One such happening was my return to Prague to take part in the Mezripatra Queer Film Festival and a seminar led by Robert McRuer and Katerina Kolarova.

The theme of this year's festival is "Truth or Dare" (in English) or "Truthful Lies" (in Czech) but I am far more struck by the non-verbal theme: two vertical pillars (a pause sign) and a side-ways triangle (a play sign). 

Reflecting the affect digital video-casting has had on film-making, as well as queer politics, one wonders if this is an invitation to PAUSE our anxious march forward (or wherever we are going) and take a moment to consider ourselves...

or is this an invitation to PLAY and not get bogged down in trying to attain perfect epistemologies or ethics, opting for direct, messy action, or are we supposed to consider these actions together? How might PLAYING keep us stationary and might PAUSING keep us going?

Unpacking my winter-clothes (Prague is much colder than Washington DC) I am ready to both take a moment of pause and to play around. Taking off my high-heels to safeguard me against Prague's cobblestone streets and putting on a heavy jacket, I look at my new dangerous androgyny. 

Will I be read according to the Trans-Femininity that I insist on a daily basis? Will I be read more masculine now? Will I be more of a mix than before? 

At this point another reading of the festivals symbols assert themselves: two pillars for two erect dicks standing side-by-side or else a tilted EQUAL sign, signifying and bastardizing the HRC's branding of LGBT politics...

As well as a tilted "upside-down" pyramid, a symbol of womanhood (see: a vagina) as well as the twice appropriated symbol for gay men. These symbols remind me that change is as distinct yet inextricable from time, as gender is from sexuality. Experiencing one is bound to fuck with the other.

After worrying about how my gender would be read, one night our seminar group attended a queer club that -- unlike most Gay and Lesbian bars I've visited in the US -- was equally mixed between men, women, and tranny-genderqueers. 

As the sensuality and fleshiness of the club reminded us, gender doesn't have to be covered up to allow for diversity. Often, like the roaring meeting halls of small democracies, the noisy club can provide a zone where genders and sexualities can be met, expressed, explored, and debated.

The same night that saw a violently aggressive masculinity expelled from the community, saw members meet at the point of conflict and contingency to defend, attend, and mend; saw a woman open up to her own desirability for and by another woman; saw words exchanged and shared silence. 

It is hard to recollect all the fragments because they exist together where change meets time and gender meets sexuality to dance and debate in noisy confusion. Chaos is often the grounds for transformation that isn't quite a simple Pause or move forward. It is that re-Play that we keep on going back to and come back from different, changed.

Play >> Play

The mirth to Play demands a lot more from us than a solemn Pause, reminds GK Chesterton in his apologetic introduction to Heretics. Play requires some mastery mixed with an openness to failure. Play requires a keen awareness of contingency (contact) mixed with a self-surrender to shared existence. Play is hard but needs to be fun, that is harder.

As I walk down the hill from the castle to downtown Prague, I pass a row of taverns and shops. Browsing the tourist traps for something for my partner and her two young daughters, I replay scenes of them playing in the yard. Without fail, every so often one would fall & cry out. 

As the child looked up at us, there was a moment where we were assessing her body to see if she was solemnly hurt. At that same moment, however, the little girl was assessing our faces to discern what the proper reaction should be. 

In most cases, the kid would be alright, just a bit muddy, in which case we would laugh. Once we did, you could watch as the child paused and decided, "yes, this is funny." Then the girls would be up and playing again. Fun is something we learn. Mirth is hard; it comes through scraped knees.

Passing the shops I walk across the Charles Bridge. What a resilient piece of architecture to have endured through generations of war, occupation, and poverty! Considering its scenic perspective on the surrounding city, punctuated with dramatic statues depicting the life, death and afterlife of mythic figures, I take in the hardened mirth of Prague. It has gotten up after many scraped knees to laugh again.

From the bridge I proceed through the old town center and to the theater where the night's films will be showing: tales of exile and death in the Canadian woods, of HIV and English comedy, of dispossession and German retirement homes, of undesired children and the court battles in the United States to allow their adoption by men with "wrong desires."

Playing Queer films can remind us of all that we have to be solemn about, but they can also teach us how to find our mirth. Like children who have fallen down, we can look at these films to try to learn what our response should be. Or perhaps the films are the scraped knees that are looking to us to help make sense of the hurt and the play.

Our play comes at that point of contingency and self-surrender -- inter-subjectivity -- and it is hard to keep pressing PLAY. Hurt after hurt, we may want to press PAUSE and make it all stop. Everything in us may rightly demand we not go on in the face of such solemnity. 

But we have learned to laugh again after such moments of pause; learned how to reflect and then refract the light that shines on us. We have done a lot and had a lot done to us, but we are not yet done. We can learn to play again.