VII. “Sufficiency–and a space to hold it all”

Clare, Kevin, Jody, Anne:  In telling these linked stories, we challenge (at least) four suppositions:

  • of a stable self (one that knows itself, is secure in that knowledge, and able to make it transparently known to others);
  • of family members (who they are, what they need, what they can make available for the shared project of building a life together);
  • of students (who they are, what they need, what they can make available for the project of shared learning); and
  • of what accommodations we require (can request not only of our institutions, but also of one another, in class and out) and be satisfied with what emerges therefrom.

We draw, throughout, on the insights of Disability Studies, on the ways in which crip ecologists, in particular, speak from-and-to the cracks, drawing out wanted and unwanted, known and unknowable intimacies with ourselves and our environments, destabilizing–and so recognizing as unending–the process of accommodating.

In bringing together Disability Studies and various related “ecological imaginings,” we start not with identity but rather the spaces between, underneath, and outside. The human body and mind do not end at the fleshly contours surrounding the self; no being is hermetically detached from the physical world. As Stacey Alaimo explains,

humans are the very stuff of the material, emergent world….profoundly…transformed by the recognition that the very substance of the self is interconnected with vast biological, economic and industrial systems that can never be entirely mapped or understood….environmental ethics…denies to the “human” the sense of separation from the interconnected, mutually constitutive actions of material reality….what is supposed to be outside the delineation of the human is always already inside.1

These “mutually constitutive” interconnections are not just about frustration and deprivation, but also a space of promise and possibility: forever, and exasperatingly, something to be desired.

Starting with the disabled “subject,” the movement for Disability Rights created a visible community to advocate for much needed rights. Activist efforts to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 worked in tandem with The Disability Studies bibliography published in Radical Teacher in 1995,2 which many cite as a crucial moment in conceiving of the field’s coherence, and which was chock full of sociological titles. In both theory and action, disability was re-defined from an individuated, shame-inducing experience to a socially maintained structure built around able-bodiedness. At that point, in both academic and activist sites, “social” was a crucial word in defining what “accessible” meant. By naming and holding stable what was meant by “social,” Disability Studies conceived of “access” as a goal.

But conceptualizing disability as bounded, its inherent fluidity circumscribed, forecloses the myriad ways in which individuals thread in and out of disabled states, based on various contexts, environmental presences, networks of care. Following these connections, we now reorient ourselves to less bounded, ever-shifting forms of relationality.

In Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour, long known for his foundational work in science studies, charges that sociologists have, for far too long, been using the term “social” to signify a stable set of affairs: something too static, too material, too cordoned-off from other domains of interaction for it to be useful in answering questions about the actual social world. For Latour, the social is momentary, a fleeting collection of agencies, which can be only glimpsed according to a Heisenberg-like principle that figures various elements as rapidly changing assemblages.3

What Latour does with the word “social” is similar to what Disability Studies is now doing with the word “accessible.” Just as Latour argues that sociologists made the “social” too sealed-tight to be useful, Disability Studies is recognizing the limitations of making accessibility too tensely committed to sanctioned forms of accommodation. If accessibility, like sociality, can only be caught in snatches when an assemblage briefly crystallizes for our observation, then accommodations that can only be agreed-upon before a particular meeting of body-minds are destined to be limited.

Latour reassembles the social by introducing key uncertainties: he advocates viewing objects as agentic, understanding group formation as more important than the group itself, and foregrounding the risk of failure in writing up our accounts. We are here modeling a similar form of access that is much more commodious, if also precarious: understood not as an analytic set off from other features of a setting, but as the way body-minds relate to each other. We also appropriate Latour’s insistence that failure is an important–and not unwanted--experience, both of doing social research and engaging in social action.

In our own experiments with access configurations in various classes and presentations, the “excess-ability” we try out is only intermittently successful. Clare and Anne pull away from the crowd surrounding Christine Sun Kim’s experiments in making sound textural and visible. Kevin and Clare bring varieties of “crip time” to Critical Feminist Studies. During our conference presentation, Jody wonders how 30-some different body-minds are taking in–or not–the words and presences of the four of us on video, in the flesh, in the clicking of our knitting needles. More extensively throughout the Identity Matters 360°, Anne’s students resolve such trade-offs between competing needs for accommodations through failure, not in spite of it. Overlaps and mutual exclusions lead us, again and again, to reconfigure access, as im/possibilities repeatedly present themselves.

We are not framing this as an intervention into such debates, because–as Latour would tell us–reaching to these stark configurations as though radical intellectual breaks will save us is precisely the problem.  Our attention here, as elsewhere throughout this book, is on the unlimited fecundity and diversity of the world—which, in the particular context of accommodation, means two things.  One: acknowledging the limitlessness of diversity means recognizing its inevitable corollary, that there will always be particular limitations in access. Two: given this infinite capacity, we can also rely on that which we do not know, on the endless supply of the surprising, which lies hidden in the inexhaustible interconnections of the world, as well as in the complexities of others’ unconscious, and in our own. What we may think of as “implacable” can shift—but wehave to experiment and practice to make this happen.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s reflections on “how the particularities of embodiment interact with the environment in its broadest sense” have been helpful to us here: her focus “on the disjunctures that occur in the interactive dynamism of becoming,” on “the relational and contingent quality of misfitting,” bring to attention the endless range of “innovative perspectives and skills” that are available for “adapting to changing and challenging environments.”4

Which brings, in turn, new risks, dangers…

This book as primer.

And crip ecology as the ever-moving ground on which it rests:

…our human future may depend on coming to grips with “crip ecology” in two senses. In one sense…life appears mutative, not as orderly as our gardenlike, bucolic picture of nature would have us imagine. In another sense…any number of us may live with what we today call disabilities. Climate change and epigenetic mutation…circulate through generations of human flesh. Ecology names an integrated network of humans-in-the-land…whatever we’ve attempted to throw ‘away’ come back through the bio-organic constitution of human flesh.5

And so we here “bear witness” to such porosity, to what exceeds clear “identification”: “alterity,” “the remainder, the different, the heterogeneous.”6 Alterity is yet another formulation of what we worry about missing in a stable notion of “access.” Riva invites students to imagine the “invisible body of desire,” unbound by any restrictions. Hummingbird dreams that she is deaf. Anne slips, in a moment, from able to disabled. Her class slips, also momentarily, into hilarious, shared intersection and celebration:

Anne Dalke

On Halloween, each of the students comes to my class dressed as another. When I walk in, to peals of laughter, they ask if I can identify their costumes. I realize that they’ve been paying much closer attention than I have to how each of them performs and presents self. What an appropriate ritual for a cluster of courses focused on “Identity Matters”! How comfortable they seem embodying each other: “Abby making Niki feel seen, understood, and celebrated…Niki understanding Kate’s ‘badass’ self, and Nkechi saying that as Sula she could run and jump…and just so many ways in which they understand and respect one another”7. Touched by all the details of hair, and jewelry, and clothing; asking each of them to explain how it feels to inhabit another identity; using my iPhone to make an impromptu video,8

I feel as though I am filming moments of desire, like those Riva evoked in her first assignment: all the students are moving beyond their own skins, briefly occupying other selves, overcoming the boundaries that separate them, crossing what has kept them apart. It’s a wonderful, joyful performance, one that’s impossible to sustain. The concept and material of “identity” slip, the students’ enactments of each other passing as they are happening. Limits reassert.

And yet.

There are multiple stories in that room.

Hummingbird

I had such a different experience of this day–one of deep discomfort and fear….seeing myself reflected by another…was really disconcerting, and brought me back to quite a painful moment. In my senior year of high school, I had an English teacher who asked us…to respond to a question about our reading…as another member of the class. My peers almost unanimously spoke as one of two people in the class; [one was] me. I was passionate about my class and the topics, had come to a theory about the circularity of writing, shared it in different ways…I was easy to categorize, so I was easy to play in the classroom. The experience of seeing myself in this narrow way hurt. It was a moment of “Is that what they really think of me?” that I didn’t have any understanding or view of before. Perhaps, also, it was disconcerting because as someone who has always been deeply self-reflective, my peers’ analysis of me showed that I was missing a great deal of self-awareness. I learned that self-reflection is really not the same thing as self-awareness.

So entering the 360º classroom and knowing someone would be “playing” me again was terrifying, because I imagined it would be like this….I underestimated the closeness of the way we interacted with each other. But…I was also very aware that I’d actively separated myself from most of my 360º classmates…I needed distance from that environment, so I didn’t have close social relationships with most of my peers, and I knew that meant their understanding of me would be confined to how I interact in the classroom and on Serendip….my (and most people’s) classroom identity is not a whole understanding of my self, and I’ve spent my entire life working to keep it that way (consciously and unconsciously)….9

Negotiating this continual tension, between what is wanted and what is possible, between self and imagined other, between self-as-known to oneself, and self-as-seen-by others…

Hummingbird again:

Hummingbird

My fear is in that seemingly un-bridgeable gully between how I see myself and how others see me. But perhaps even more deeply, my fear is that the how-others-see-me perspective is the real version of me, and so, somehow, what is outside of my self is creating my self–and I’ve lost control.10

To see space as relational, co-created among humans, the material configurations in which we find ourselves, and the multiple accommodations we use to navigate that world, is to imagine these sites always in motion. The intersecting locations we here interrogate–Clare’s clothing, Jody’s dreams, Kevin’s butterfly bandage, the classroom and on-line arrangements that make Anne’s students feel that they cannot speak and are not heard–are always unstable.  And creative.

This matters for how we teach and learn, for how the multiplicity of differences bound together in any given point creates both abundance and constraint, for how participants are always desiring, accommodating, redrawing our and others’ understandings and boundaries.

The concept of a stable self poses a real problem in the context of education, where forced content, testing regimes, and tightly scripted classrooms assume a transparency, and an equivalence, between output and uptake. We have come to understand this as a matter of access. Designing the “perfect” course, one that tries to accord with the principles of universal design, fails to acknowledge that each self is unstable, evolving, always exceeding its description. Acknowledging that none of us knows entirely what we need, as we gather for classes and conferences that are themselves contingent and porous, reminds us that there will always be remainders, those for whom even universal design fails to provide access. How better to shape these spaces, which we now understand as part of larger ecosystems characterized by an unlimited fecundity and diversity, which do not submit to the limitations of injunction, testing, command or control?

In these circumstances, pedagogy becomes a capacious term that invites simultaneous authority and surrender.  As teachers and facilitators, we bring to bear our particular kinds of knowledge while recognizing its incompleteness, the inevitability of multiple other perspectives, values, constraints, and desires in the room. We teach out of a vital responsiveness to a continually evolving environment in which competing needs fall into place, lose, gain, juxtapose.

  1. Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010), 20, 23-25.
  2. Simi Linton, Susan Mello and John O’Neill, “Disability Studies: Expanding the Parameters of Diversity,” Radical Teacher 47 (Fall 1995): 4-10.
  3. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  4. Garland-Thompson, “Misfits,” 594, 600, 604.
  5. Miguel A. De la Torre, Introducing Liberative Theologies(Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2015).
  6. Levi R. Bryant, “Adorno, Representation, and Differential Ontology,Larval Subjects, June 13, 2011. 
  7. Kristin Lindgren, e-mail message to author, October 31, 2014.
  8. Anne Dalke, “Now Live! Our Costumes of Identity,” October 30, 2014 (10:53 p.m.).
  9. Hummingbird, E-mail message to author, June 8, 2016.
  10. Hummingbird, E-mail.