Staying with the Trouble

Bryn-Mawr-Die-In

Diversity would be institutionalized … when it ceases to cause trouble

–Sara Ahmed, On Being Included

In early December, I join a march that begins on campus, centers on a “die-in” in the center of town, and continues to the Haverford College campus, a mile away.

Although most of the media coverage, this time, is local, not national,1 I am heartened to be there.

At the faculty meeting the following week, I stand again, to say how glad I was to join so many of my colleagues in the demonstration; of how, during my thirty-three years at the College, I’ve never participated in an action that left campus to take a stand, as this one did; of how proud I am of our student organizers, of their professional demeanor ….

and that I’ve also been distressed to hear of an interaction, over the weekend, between a white member of our Campus Safety staff, and several black students, both residents and guests. I understand that the encounter involved racial profiling. I have questions about valorizing confidentiality, both in this incident, and in the procedures that were followed in the confrontation over the Confederate Flag.

When sanctions are not made public, I say, the public story becomes one of non-action.

This time, rather than receiving hugs and affirmations, I am told, by both president and provost, that these are “personnel issues,” not public matters.

I recall C. Wright Mills’ definition of “the sociological imagination,” “the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.”2 I want to shout about the ways in which “personnel” issues are always structural, about how institutional racism enables and covers personal assault, about the danger and downside of anonymity and privacy, about the counter-need for transparency and disclosure.

Instead, I send the provost an article about the “fateful pairing” of rape and anonymity, in which Geneva Overholser asks,

How do you size up a problem that’s largely hidden? …. Without data and transparency, the issue has … a hard time gaining footing …. When the crime is not reported, and no one is named, how do you get the data? …. anonymity … prevents the public from fully engaging with the problem.3

I pair this with two testimonies to institutional racism, recently posted by black members of the Vassar faculty, Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,”4 and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Deans’ Job in the Age of Mike Brown.”5

Several months later,  I meet with the provost and several other faculty leaders; we plan for on-going diversity training of faculty members. This summer, I again mentor Nkechi, who is designing these workshops, which may unsettle new members of the community, may further unsettle the community itself.

This makes me hopeful.

At the same time, back in Virginia, the local paper is running an article about the “sudden visibility of Confederate flags,” “long scorned as a symbol of racism and hatred,” now “enjoying a resurgence of popularity … in Shenandoah County,” “festooning … front porches and pickup trucks as never before.”6


IMG_1999mtjackson2mtjackson1

I can’t leave the farm without noticing a pair of walkers, each toting a flag; a biker towing an over-sized one; many trucks with six or more a-flying. Driving a few miles south, I enter one festooned neighborhood; a few miles north, another.


tomsbrooktomsbrook1tomsbrook2

In intentional sites like Bryn Mawr, where many members have made a deliberate commitment to create an inclusive community, I’m learning how an unintentional “slip” might function, as Emily explained, to remind us that “there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.” Of course this making of messes, and then cleaning them up, never ends, but I also see how this process can function as an ongoing impetus not to settle in, a noting and questioning that can precipitate action, and change.

And now I wonder: in communities formed less intentionally, like the one in which I was raised, and to which I repeatedly return, what other opportunites for renewal might exist, what slips between intent and action, between action and reaction?”The sociologist travels at home,” Peter Berger quipped, “debunking” and “unmasking” — “with shocking results.”7

Pushed, I acknowledge that there may be some resemblance between the orientation of those who fly Confederate flags, and my own attitude, in faculty meetings and classrooms up North: feeling a compulsion to ask my questions aloud, refusing to accept what I read, or to settle for what I’m told, feeling pressed to share these refusals, to speak out, and so to push others…

“Don’t tread on me.”

Don’t tell me what to think.

I begin to imagine what dreams might lie behind these flags.

In the rural South, as in the suburban North, there are desires for restoration.

But there are surely also–and simultaneously–other forms of dreaming that are less “domesticated,” an associative sort of thinking that isn’t seeking to reprise what was, or any other particular end. In How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn describes his own learning, in an Amazon forest, in these terms:

to become aware of…associative chains of thought…and then…to learn something about the inner forests these thoughts explore as they resonate through the psyche. Freud, of course, wanted to tame this kind of thinking….But…there is another way….we might see these associations as thoughts in the world–exemplars of a kind of worldly thinking, undomesticated…by a particular human mind and her particular ends….the semiotics of dreaming…involves these spontaneous, self-organizing…associations in ways that can dissolve some of the boundaries we usually recognize between inside and outsides….when the conscious, purposive daytime work of discerning difference is relaxed, when we no longer ask thought for a “return”….Dreaming may well be…a sort of thought run wild–a human form of thinking that goes well beyond the human…a sort of “pensée sauvage”; a form of thinking unfettered from its own intentions and therefore susceptible to the play of forms in which it has become immersed.8

In Kohn’s formulation, such an “unfettered” form of thinking is the activity of an individual, relaxing into an awareness of her web of connections with the world. I am suggesting here that such kinds of associative thinking might operate as well, and well, on a group–even on an institutional–level.

“Things are not what they seem,” Berger advises, “Social reality turns out to have many layers of meaning. The discovery of each new layer changes the perception of the whole,” can “fly in the face of what is taken for granted.”9

How might the college, as institution, dig into these layers of meaning, seek out an active politics of difference based on what is found there, make it palpable and available?How might the college, as institution, dig into these layers of meaning, seek out an active politics of difference based on what is found there, make it palpable and available? What political motions might unsettle the established structures, keep them ever off balance, ever renewing and renewable?10

  1. TBC:Pete Bannan, “All Black Lives Matter ‘Die In’ Held in Bryn Mawr During Evening Rush Hour,” Main Line Media News(December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; David Chang, “Protesters for Mike Brown, Eric Garner March Through Main Line,” NBC10.com (December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; Justin Finch, “College Students Join Together for ‘Die-In’ Demonstration on the Main Line,” CBS Philly(December 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015; Kenneth Moton, “Die-In Protest Reaches the Main Line,” ABC Action News(December 9, 2015), accessed July 17, 2015
  2. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  3. Geneva Overholser, “Rape and Anonymity: A Fateful Pairing,” December 11, 2014, accessed July 17, 2015
  4. Kiese Laymon, “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,” November 29, 2014 (1:56 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  5. Eve Dunbar, “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Deans’ Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” December 2, 2014 (12:10 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  6. Keith Stickley, “Confederate Flag: Heritage or Hate? Old South Symbol Gains Popularity Here,” The Free Press (July 30, 2015), accessed August 10, 2015
  7. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1963), accessed July 17, 2015
  8. Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 177, 185, 188.
  9. Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology.
  10. Cf. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy.” Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (1994): 29-58.

“Taking Up Residence”

… if diversity is to remain a question, it is not one that can be solved

–Sara Ahmed, On Being Included

… how can I, can we, stay with the trouble…?

–Donna Haraway, “”When Species Meet”

The structures I want to alter, the silences I want to break, have been a long time a-building — not only at the village, but also at Bryn Mawr, where I have little interest in restoring the college’s history. Describing institutions like Bryn Mawr as “political projects,” and the questions of “who gets to learn, and what they learn there,” as “deeply political questions,” Monica Mercado decries the founding of influential universities as part of the larger colonial project of unsettling Native Americans, clearing the land of people who lived there, replacing them with white settlers — who, in turn, founded institutions of study, “not for the enslaved or the replaced,” but for white men. Colleges such as these, Monica maintains, are “part of the arsenal of European imperialism”; all the leading universities promoted and profited from slavery, racism, and coloniaism. The earliest of these were playgrounds for wealthy boys, where ideas about race were “made and taught.” Created as “bastions of white upper class women,” the Seven Sisters Colleges followed this model, denying to African Americans the education they made available only to “a certain kind of women.” The histories of elite institutions like Bryn Mawr are histories of intense privilege and wealth, and of the hierarchies they create and maintain.1

Racism remains insistently present-and-active at the College, as it does elsewhere in the country. And much of our current work to unseat such campus hierarchies seems to me problematic, paradoxical, enacting the dream of restoration, grasping for a time that never was, and never can be. Sara Ahmed, once again, is prescient here, cautioning both that diversity can be offered as a narrative of repair, as what allows us to”‘recover” from racism. She cautions that such recovery is not possible:

Diversity is often imagined as … a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken …. diversity enters institutional discourse as a language of reparation; as a way of imagining that those who are divided can work together; a way of assuming that ‘to get along’ is to right a wrong. Not to be excluded becomes not simply an account of the present … but also a way of relating to the past. Racism is framed as a memory of what is no longer.2

Searching for an alternative to “restoration,” “repair,” and “recovery” — seeking for a way, in other words, to “stay with the trouble,” while not settling for-or-in it — I find myself recognizing a messy, slow — indeed, inevitable and unending — process that I first heard formulated by a student nearly ten years before; it was she who supplied my keynote of “slipping.” Emily Elstad, who studied “Big Books of American Literature”3 with me in Spring 2003, wrote at the conclusion of that semester about the importance of attending to the gaps that open up when we mis-step or mis-speak. Emily’s essay, entitled  “Slipping into Something More Comfortable: Huckleberry Finn and the Discourse of ‘Nigger,'” anticipated much of the current discourse about embracing difference, acknowledging a “racial unconscious” that needs to be — indeed, cannot avoid being — brought into the open, in order to be addressed.4 Beginning with an explanation offered by a local congressman, of a “slip” made by the mayor of Philadelphia, in addressing the NAACP —

“The Brothers and Sisters are running this city! Don’t let nobody fool you: we are in charge of the city of Brotherly Love. We are in charge! We are in charge!”

— John Street (Spring 2002)

“You’re speaking your mind and sometimes you slip. We all slip.”

— Lucien Blackwell, in response to Street’s comment

— Emily went on to draw on a range of classroom experiences, in order to argue that

political correctness, or our fear of ‘mis’understandings, anticipates offenses that can never be predicted, and that if we do not allow ourselves to ‘slip,’ we cannot learn the truth about what we think or the truth about how others feel about what we think. ‘Slip’ can mean ‘to slide or glide, esp. on a smooth or slippery surface; to lose one’s foothold’ or ‘to break or escape’ — a person, the tongue, lips.’ These definitions imply that what we bring to verbal ‘slippage’ is involuntary, which suggests that in ‘slipping’ somehow we access our unconscious, or what we ‘really mean.’ Other definitions of ‘slip’ include ‘to fall away from a standard; to lose one’s command of things,’ and ‘to pass out of, escape from, the mind or memory.’ These notions of ‘slip’ posit a new state emerging from the act of slipping, a temporary loss of control that yields both a personal, subjective truth and a changed state that has moved away from ‘a standard’ and into new thought and order. Instead of chastising people for ‘slipping,’ for describing the way in which they honestly think about the world, perhaps we should consider the meaning behind words spoken in moments of ‘slipping’ and really think about how they speak to our world. Thinking metaphorically, sometimes only by slipping and falling to the floor do we notice that there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.5

Re-reading Emily’s essay, I now recognize that the sort of “slippage” about racial difference we encountered at the village is not confined to those with intellectual disabilities. It happens all the time, everywhere — including at communities like Bryn Mawr, where many members have been identified as “intellectually gifted.” More importantly, Emily suggests that such “slips” offer the college a way to move beyond old forms of failed engagement, in which those of us who “belong” welcome (or refuse welcome to) those of us who have more newly arrived.

As we construct and re-construct ourselves during our college years (and for decades thereafter), as we construct and re-construct the institutions within which we live and work, the differences within-and-among us are always in motion. Ahmed is once again helpful here, calling out how each act of inclusion, each gesture of hospitality, re-figures an old — and yet somehow always new-and-surprising — exclusion:

To be welcomed is to be positioned as the one who is not at home … treated as guests, temporary residents …. welcomed on condition they return that hospitality by integrating into a common organizational culture, or by ‘being’ diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate their diversity …. this very structural position of being the guest, or the stranger, the one who receives hospitality, allows an act of inclusion to maintain the form of exclusion.6

If each new inclusion reactivates old exclusions, how to speak with one another about such divergences? Is it possible to construct a classroom space, a campus, a county or a country, which can hold them all?If each new inclusion reactivates old exclusions, how to speak with one another about such divergences? Is it possible to construct a classroom space, a campus, a county or a country, which can hold them all?

I get a chance to work through these questions the next semester, when I offer “Ecological Imaginings,” a course structured around the premise that “the real, material ecological crisis … is also a crisis of representation … a failure of narrative.”7

Not so surprisingly, the narrative that holds this course together falters.

Ahmed again: “solutions to problems are the problems given new form.”8

One of my experiments here is to ask each student to take a turn at selecting our class site. I hope this will result in our meeting outside more often, and so engaging with a range of interesting eco-pedagogical questions: how attentive should we be to the distractions of wind, sun, rain, birdsong, and the voices of others nearby? How much space and time should we give to those interruptions not on the course agenda?9

The weather is pretty miserable in the Philadelphia area this winter and spring, so we don’t get out too much.

But we do relocate, twice a week, in various buildings around campus.

On April 21, we gather in the common room of Radnor dormitory, which was the site of the stand-off around the Confederate flag. Radnor has also long been the site of the biggest party of the school year (and, as a result, also the site of occasional shutdowns, and fairly frequent disciplinary action); in short, it is the dorm that students, faculty and administrators are least likely to associate with schoolwork. Nkechi, who selects the location, describes the common room as her “living room,” and expects that her classmates will find it particularly “homey,” because it has been well decorated, with lots of Christmas, Halloween, and flower lights hanging at the entrance, above the fireplace, along all the walls.

The week before, we read Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir, An Unspoken Hunger.10 In its aftermath, Caleb Eckert, another member of this class, writes,

caleb.eckertour classes in academic institutions feel a little like going to church on Sundays: there are so many powerful, moving, ecological thoughts, but in the end we all leave the building and go home …. There isn’t much space made for intellectual thought to be brought into tangible practice. It’s not just the question of how we can effectively educate people, but also the question of how we can provide spaces and practices that embody thinking in doing …. It is scary to be vulnerable and honest with ourselves and each other …. Because in doing so, we realize that we have so much to sacrifice and let go of.11

Sitting in a circle in the Radnor common room, I ask class members to take turns reading aloud what Caleb has written. Midway through the course of this exercise, one of his classmates looks around the room, and says suddenly that the lights make her uncomfortable, because they remind her of Christmas — and she is not Christian. Nkechi is stunned — ashamed, she says later — that her attempt to create a welcoming space has made one of her classmates feel so unwelcome. She immediately offers to turn off the lights. When she does this, the others seem to me disappointed, but — glad not to have to negotiate this division, which has caught me off-guard — I quickly re-direct our attention back to the text at hand.

Immediately after class, however, Joni writes in our course forum:

joni sky

“I do want everyone to feel comfortable [and safe] in all of the spaces we share …. i think it’s important for every member of a community to be heard. so i’m also uncomfortable with a majority giving in to the wishes of a minority. every voice is not heard and respected in that situation either. consensus based decision making seems impossible on the scale of this entire campus, and too time consuming for our classroom, but i wonder if we can make a little more space for it in our lives.”12

Recognizing this as a call to “make a little more space” in our class, I start our next session with the observation of yet another student, Purple Finch, that “thinking ecologically” has ceased, for her, to be about the environment, and more about collaborative and interactive process.13 Following her lead, I say, we need to talk about our interactions, about how, in particular, we might adjudicate differences such as these that have arisen among us. The Unknown says the lights are an explicit reminder of “Christians killing Jews”; one person’s “Christmas” lights have become another’s “Holocaust.” Joni says that she, too, is Jewish, but finds the lights a comfort; they make her feel that she belongs at Bryn Mawr. Marian observes that seeking “consensus” among these views might limit the range of our knowing. I posit that this tension is one we’d also seen in the fall, when the display of a Confederate flag by two Southern students — declared by them a sign of “home” — was read by most others on campus as an unequivocal symbol of racist segregation.

I don’t mention it then, but I can see clearly now how Nkechi, who had been so affronted in the fall by the display of that flag, has now, in turn, affronted another student with her own light-filled display of “home.”

 

She may have slipped.

 

We all do.

The structures with which we surround ourselves are slipping, too.

As Monica’s “(Short, Incomplete, and Often Invisible) History of Race and Higher Education” makes clear, these institutional structures are actually built on slippages.

The incorporation of racial diversity was not part of the original vision of Bryn Mawr; the views of its second president, M. Carey Thomas, who re-designed and re-directed the college’s mission, were both “exclusionary” and “supremacist.” According to research conducted by my colleague Linda-Susan Beard, Thomas’s letters and speeches entwined “feminist ideology with talk of racial hierarchies,” her “views about Negroes and Jews” particularly discriminatory.14

Coates: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”15

It takes most of our class time that day, but the students eventually arrive at a quantitative judgment: that one student’s pain outweighs the slight loss of pleasure experienced by the others.

I am very glad that we have this conversation. In directing the students outside the classroom, I had asked how much space and time we should give to interruptions not on the course agenda. Instead of the distractions I’d anticipated — “of wind, sun, rain, birdsong, and the voices of others nearby” — we have been brought back inside, to attend more directly to our interactions with one another.

Of course I also have the contradictory thought (which may well have occurred to you while reading this account) that, in focusing on how we handle differences among ourselves, we very well might be deflecting the even more overwhelming questions raised by the texts I assign for discussion this week: excerpts from Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,16 and from Joanna Macy’s reflections on World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal.17 These books ask us to reflect, respectively, on the mounting dangers of climate change, and of the storage of nuclear waste. We set these reflections aside, in order to talk about community making.

And yet. The two projects may be closely related. As Caleb writes in the manifesto he crafts at the end of the semester,

caleb.eckertThe slow, amorphous, complex entities of climate change and environmental disaster upend conventional ways of teaching and learning. To grow empowered and thoughtful students, environmental education needs to provide shovels for us to dig deep into the way systems are set up, the way we live, as well as to inculcate a rich ethic of stewardship based on empathetic, compassionate encounter with both world and self.18

As I and my students stumble and slip, re-framing, re-shaping and unsettling the systems in which we operate, I hear our work well described, once again, by Sara Ahmed:

We come up against the force and weight of something when we attempt to alter the conditions of an existence …. when we do not ‘quite’ inhabit the norms of an institution …. When we are … held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience … of ‘being stopped’ …from the point of view of those who do not flow into it …. Diversity work … can describe the effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence …. being made into a stranger … not being at home in a category that gives residence to others.19

The Unknown, who felt “stopped” by those Christmas lights, which “made her into a stranger” at Bryn Mawr, writes up what has happened. In doing so, she records what we said in class not as statements made by individuals, but as “a collective undertaking”: not assigning “opinions and emotions to people,” but instead portraying our conflict “as a joint issue/problem that… we all must confront.” I find what she calls her “political, social, racial, gender writing experiment”20 a wonderful, concrete example of using language to reflect a more interactive and collaborative way of thinking-and-enacting, one in which each of us assumes a role, not of insider or out, familiar or strange, but all co-habiting, re-shaping our institutional “residence” as we do so.

Conversations continue afterwards among pairs of students. Some of the differences among us get smoothed over during final collaborative projects; others are exacerbated, as classmates recognize how much their interests diverge, and they choose not to work together.

  1. Monica Mercado, “A (Short, Incomplete, and Often Invisible) History of Race and Higher Education” (paper presented at the Bryn Mawr Teach-In on Race, Higher Education, Rights and Responsibilities, Bryn Mawr College, November 18, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015
  2. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 164.
  3. Big Books of American Literature” (course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2003), accessed July 17, 2015
  4. Marguerite Rigoglioso, “Unconscious Racial Stereotypes Can Be Reversible,” Insights by Stanford Business (January 1, 2008), accessed July 17, 2015
  5. Emily Elstad, “Slipping into Something More Comfortable: Huckleberry Finn and the Discourse of ‘Nigger'” (paper written for English 207: Big Books of American Literature, Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2003).
  6. Ahmed, 43.
  7. “Ecological Imaginings.”
  8. Ahmed, 143.
  9. I take my inspiration from a student who enrolled in the first version of “Ecological Imaginings,” and challenged me to “expand the net of attention” in class. Sara Gladwin asked if it were 

    sara.gladwin“ecologically literate” to teach and condition children to filter out divergent thinking, [to teach them] not to pay attention to their surroundings, to let the environment fade into the background …. maybe the environment would be better protected …if instead of reprimanding the student whose eye has been caught by whatever can be seen from a classroom window, we were to give that student the opportunity to go outside, to broaden their thinking horizons. Maybe we would be able to expand our concept of importance, give focus to what has been consistently pushed into the backgrounds of our imaginations.

  10. Terry Tempest Williams, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  11. Caleb Eckert, “Earthquake Aftermath,” April 17, 2015 (8:05 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  12. joni sky, “consent/consensus,” April 22, 2015 (10:22 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  13. Purple Finch, “Teach in Thoughts,” April 17, 2015 (0:52 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  14. Linda-Susan Beard. “The Other Bryn Mawr History: The M. Carey Thomas Legacy” (paper presented at The Community Day of Learning: Race and Ethnicity at Bryn Mawr and Beyond. March 18, 2014), accessed July 17, 2015
  15. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), accessed July 17, 2015
  16. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  17. Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2007).
  18. Caleb Eckert, “Manifesto for Environmental Studies,” May 13, 2015 (6:45 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  19. Ahmed, 175-177.
  20. The Unknown, “Class Observation/Notes,” April 24, 2015 (12:53 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015

III. “The act of slow looking”

garden
Seated in the center of this photo — of a garden of herbs, and of blue and orange flowers — is a person, back to us, wearing a broad-rimmed hat, an orange shirt, and blue pants and scarf, who appears to be weeding. We catch only a glimpse of the side of their face, as they look down at their task.

Monstrosity, of course, is not confined to the classroom. In this intolerable season, not only has the Confederate flag been on display on the Bryn Mawr campus, but non-indictments have been handed down in both Missouri and New York.1 College administrators begin to organize a Community Day of Learning, “designed to illuminate and consider the benefits and challenges of living and learning in a diverse community.”2 As I participate in the planning, I am feeling troubled by Sara Ahmed’s observations that “diversity management” might function as a way of “containing conflict or dissent,” “a discourse of “benign variation” that “bypasses power as well as history.”  I recognize how easily the language of diversity can be “mobilized as a defense of reputation,” “a means of maintaining privilege.” “The discourse of diversity,” Ahmed prods, “is one of respectable differences …. used not only to displace attention from material inequalities but also to aestheticize equality.”3

My education into the residue of history, of its continuing action in the dynamics of power, continues unabated as Fall 2014 unfolds.

This semester, along with colleagues in Disability Studies and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I have co-designed a cluster of courses modeled on an intersectional approach to identity.4 Focusing, in particular, on those identity categories of “humans being” that may seem non-normative, we read, view and create a range of representations, asking what stories we tell, and what images we construct, about ourselves and others — and how we might revise them. What are the possibilities, what the limits, and what roles might others play in these re-imaginings?

A central event in this work is a co-curricular project conceptualized and led by artist and curator Riva Lehrer.5 During an extended stay at the nearby intentional community that includes adults with intellectual disabilities, our students participate in villagers’ work assignments, eat meals in their homes, and are welcomed into many aspects of their daily lives. Each also works closely with a village partner to create a portrait that represents them both realistically and symbolically. Villagers, in turn, complete drawings and portraits of their college partners. At semester’s end, our villager partners visit Bryn Mawr, where they tour the campus, see their partners’ rooms, share a meal, and exchange completed drawings and portraits.

At least that’s the plan.

The reality — of an active world, shaping and being shaped by active subjects — turns out to a be considerably more complicated.

Tobin Seibers describes disability as a “body of knowledge.”6 His concept of the interactively constructed self helps to highlight one very challenging dimension of our experiences at this dynamic farming, gardening, and handcrafting community, which is spread across hundreds of acres of farm, gardens, and woodlands. The bucolic site offers a local model for intentional, ecological living; it is filled with the pleasures of easy access to the natural world, and fueled by sustainable human actions, such as dairy farming, fruit and vegetable gardening, weaving, pottery-making, bread- and cookie-baking.

There is much here to enjoy and admire in this community; Riva compares, for instance, of the sensory deprivation of being hospitalized with the multiple pleasures offered by the village.

Camphillroom
Displayed here is a photo of a living room highlighted in red and blue. A circular table sits in the center, on a braided rug; three chairs surround the table, each with a braided cushion. There is an upright piano on the left; sunlight enters through two windows in the center; a sideboard on the right is covered with games.

Here “invisible people” are accepted as “social refugees,” made visible and useful. And yet, as one of the long-term householders also explained to us, “this is a community place, not a people place”; that is, individual empowerment is valued less than communal harmony — and such harmony comes at a number of costs, including those of diversity of race, class and ability. The community does not, in fact, offer a political or empowerment model of disability. It is insular, and strikes us, when we visit, as largely unaffected by time, modern technologies, and the demand of creating access for villagers whose families cannot afford the substantial fees for living here.

field
Pictured now is a large, open field. At the center is a piece of farm equipment, which is distinctive in having two seats; the sky, which is filled with lowering clouds, takes up half the picture.

The three evocative photographs above were taken at the community by Rebecca,7 one of the students in our course cluster.

Her role in capturing these images is a reminder that there is always someone behind the camera.

There is also an artist embedded in each portrait created in the village. And in each portrait, further complexities: both a portrayal “of” the village and an “art of resistance” to it, to what it “means” and stands for. Consider, for example, this self-portrait of Nkechi,8 another student in our course cluster:

NkechiSelfPortrait
It is a line drawing of her torso, cut out and pasted on a collage of red, orange and white posters reading “Black Lives Matter.” Nkechi’s hair is braided, and she wears a single hoop on her left ear. In the center of her shirt, which is composed of newspaper articles about Ferguson, Missouri, is a bright red female symbol with a fist. Nkechi’s image of herself is entangled, bound, woven, composed of newspaper articles and protest signs.

In mid-October, when Nkechi arrives at the village along with the rest of our students in our cluster, she is exhausted. She is the president of the Bryn Mawr dorm where two white Southern students put a Confederate flag on public display, and has been embroiled in the aftermath of this event, disheartened by its profound challenge to community making on campus, a disturbance reinforced by the refusals to indict elsewhere in the country.

Nkechi is assigned to shadow a villager who tells her that she doesn’t like to be with “people who look like you”; she hears another (white) villager call one of her (black) classmates “my chocolate.” At the end of our first day, Nkechi decides to leave, and so does not have the chance to experience Riva’s vision: how we “build the project around the concept of portraiture as relationship,” how “the act of slow looking fosters encounters that unfolded differently from, or raised productive difficulties about, standard power relationships … of age, race, gender, and able-bodied and impaired.”9

Nkechi has no opportunity to learn from such experiences, because those “standard power relationships” — especially those of race, class and ability — have foreclosed her engagement in the first place. Many of the villagers lack the social filters which conventionally hide such differences.

To explain why Nkechi’s departure is not accidental, but rather insistently over-determined, I draw on an essay by Eli Clare, who visits my class on “Ecological Imaginings”10 at Bryn Mawr the following semester. We read and discuss Eli’s “Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and a Politics of Cure,” which begins with a walk through a restored tall-grass prairie, and invites us to think from that place about the concept of “restoration,” of “undoing harm,” rebuilding a system that has been broken. It is an action that — while acknowledging that such a return will always be incomplete — is rooted in the belief that the original state was better than what is current.11

Eli argues that this metaphor (like all metaphors) falls short, as a means of thinking through the concept of “cure,” if we imagine it as a mandate of return to a former, non-disabled state of the individual body. The desire for restoration is bound to loss, to yearning for what was thought to have been — but sometimes such restoration is not possible.  In Eli’s story, as in many others, the original non-disabled body has never existed; such an account arises from imagining what the (normal, natural) body should be.

During our discussion about the limitations of this concept for those who are disabled, Nkechi says,

I also resist the desire for restoration, which seems to me to come from a place of privilege. For some of us, this is the best time ever. There is no time we want to go back to, no historical period we want ‘restored,’ no era when people who look like me weren’t devalued even more than we are now.

Her comment echoes for me, deeply entangled with Eli’s essay, as a critique of the “restored” and “restorative” world of the village community, and of the limitations placed on the possibilities of our engagement there. Eli says to us that “disabled bodies, like restored prairies, resist the impulse … toward monoculture.”12 In the creation of retreats for disabled bodies and minds, we need also find a way towards more varied arts of resistance to the monocultural.

For starters: markedly absent in my account so far has been any elaboration of the experience of the villager whose “unfiltered” dismissal of Nkechi was, if not mean-spirited, still prejudiced and misguided.

DD2

nkechi

Nkechi’s departure from the village is necessary for her well-being. It also causes distress to her professors and peers — perhaps to none more so than Amelia, who replaces Nkechi as her villager’s partner for the remainder of the week. The villager’s immediate liking for her makes Amelia feel a little guilty, but over the course of the week, the two of them are able to share a number of meaningful interactions. Ethical portraiture, as Riva explained, involves attending carefully to one another. Such attention seems to be very much in evidence in each of these photographic portraits, in which Nkechi and the villager entirely fill the frame. Each is smiling at Rebecca, who is again the photographer. But both Nkechi and the villager have been subject to forms of oppression that disallow them from seeing past a whole range of conventional stereotypes; these historical and structural barriers to acknowledging one another prove insurmountable to their forming a working relationship, much less a friendship.

 

DDPortraitbyAmelia
Amelia’s pastel drawing of the villager captures her at work in the pottery studio: she has one hand on a vase she is making, while she looks up at the viewer, as if, in the midst of her work, she has been called out by another — called, perhaps, into relationship.[ref]abradycole, “Villager Portrait,” December 14, 2014 (11:25 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015[/ref]
The photos Amelia selects to figure her relationship with the villager are even more interactive: the two are seated close to one another, both smiling broadly. Amelia’s text — which is illustrated with colorful images of the natural world, of people and food — also witnesses to the pleasures of time “slowing down,” of “calm, comfortable” days when the only expectations are “being present and getting to know one another.”13

But perhaps the most profound image of such knowing is the doubled portrait of Amelia and herself that the villager creates.14 It pictures two figures, one in a dress, one in pants, who seem together to be carrying a bag; pants, dress and bag are all colored the same shade of blue. Behind the shorter figure is the ghost of an earlier sketch; the artist seems to have changed her mind about how tall she wants that figure to be ….

DDPortraitofHerandAmelia_0

I now imagine that ghostly figure as Nkechi, who — due to a whole panoply of larger dynamics — is excluded from, and yet continues to haunt, this pair. Her relationship with the villager is built — not entirely deterministically, but not incidentally, either — of a range of larger structures. In the village, which is intentionally shielded from the outside world, Nkechi and the villager are unable to come to know one another as I and my co-teachers hoped they might do. The villager is direct about her disinclination to work with Nkechi. And although there may be some complicated answers to the question of what it means for an adult with intellectual disabilities to make these statements, Nkechi hears them, quite simply, as a conduit for prejudicial feeling and racist discourse.  As a result, the villager sees Nkechi heading out, refusing to submit to what would have been a highly unpredictable and likely exhausting relation.

Of course — even as I bring into view her photograph, her portrait, and one of the images she created — the villager herself also remains something of a ghostly figure in my account. Given the complexities of access in this process, what has happened to our collective project of “ethical portraiture”? How is it possible for me to provide an ethical account of what happened among us?

Might a more active politics of difference enable us to move beyond our desires for restoration–of impairment, of a relationship, of a community, of a campus, of an eco-system?

Eli Clare ends his own meditations on “disabled bodies and natural worlds” with a return to the tall-grass prairie, not “a retreat but the ground upon which we ask all these questions.”15 I, too, have a range of related questions about the complex valuing of difference as a form of both cultural and ecological diversity, and about how we might make such difference palpable and available.

Do we need to return to the village, either with these students, or with another class, to keep on working through our partnership? Are different sorts of relationships possible among us?

Might a more active politics of difference enable us to move beyond our desires for restoration — of impairment, of a relationship, of a community, of a campus, of an eco-system?

 

  1. Ryan Grim, Matt Sledge and Mariah Stewart, “From Daniel Pantaleo To Darren Wilson, Police Are Almost Never Indicted,” Huffington Post, December 3, 2014 (5:15 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  2. Campus Comes Together for Community Day of Learning,” March 20th, 2015 (1:06 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015.
  3. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 13,151.
  4. Identity Matters: Being, Belonging, Becoming” (a cluster of courses at Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2014), accessed July 17, 2015.
  5. Riva Lehrer,” accessed July 17, 2015
  6. Tobin Siebers, “Returning the Social to the Social Model” (paper presented at the annual conference of the Society of Disability Studies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 13, 2014)
  7. rebeccamec, “Fall Break Photos,” December 2, 2014 (19:19 p.m.), accessed July 19, 2015
  8. nkechi, “Self Portrait,” December 18, 2014 (00:22 a.m.), accessed July 29, 2015,
  9. Riva Lehrer, “Consent to Be Seen” (proposal for a panel on “The Ethics of Representation: How Context Matters,” to be presented at the Society of Disability Studies, Atlanta, Georgia, June 12, 2015).
  10. Ecological Imaginings” (course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2014), accessed July 17, 2015
  11. Eli Clare, “Meditations on Disabled Bodies, Natural Worlds, and a Politics of Cure,” 21, accessed July 17, 2015
  12. —–, “Meditations,” 19.
  13. abradycole, “Zine Page,” December 18, 2014 (10:29 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  14. abradycole, “Drawing,” December 14, 2014 (11:26 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2015
  15. Eli Clare, “Meditations,” 24.

Unbinding


“… poststructuralist feminism’s appreciation of the psychic coordinates and repetitions constitutive of gender

locates much of its production in social norms and deep processes of identifications and repudiations only intermittently knowable to its subjects, even less often graspable,

and thus unsuited to a paradigm of transformation premised upon seizing and eliminating the conditions producing and reproducing gender …

conditions that are no longer posited as outside of its subjects … are not ours to mastermind but at best only to resist or negotiate”

–Wendy Brown, “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics”

I re-start my story (where I start most of them): in a classroom, in the recent past. In Fall 2013, I offer (as I have several times before) an introductory course at Bryn Mawr College called “Critical Feminist Studies.”1 This is an English class, which focuses on questions of representation, and queries what it might mean to “unbind” feminism from what Wendy Brown calls “the big bang theory of social change,” an unbinding which she also offers as an “opening of possiblity to live and think differently.”2

Among the twenty-five students enrolled is a queer woman from Texas who writes, early on,

nia.pikeI honestly grew up in a box. It was a box with walls of expectations. I was never comfortable in that box. Yet it was not until I was old enough to think for and make significant decisions by myself that I began to question and tear apart my box. I wish I had begun this process earlier because I know now how much of an impact those walls had on me as a person. Our childhood molds us, but it does not make us who we are.3

… my previous name was too identifiable as me …. the distance is necessary because I do not perform … the same for everyone because I am afraid of the conservative, close-minded society I come from …. I do not want my resignification … to be revealed preemptively. I am not ready to face the music if certain people happen upon this forum ….I  would rather do it in my own way and in my own time.4

I’ve moved around quite a bit during my 20+ years. I never felt connected enough to a place to call it home, I also never trusted a place enough to call it home.5

As we transition into the second half of the semester, the syllabus shifts from “engendering ourselves” to “engendering our institutions,” and Nia re-directs her focus from her own emerging identity to that of the college:

nia.pike… there are many cases where Bryn Mawr with its “progressive” and “open-mindedness” has stifled the cultural identities of students …. The student body at Bryn Mawr has become a close-minded place, focused on the advancement of certain cultural identities. Bryn Mawr like any other cultural hub has norms: white, queer, upper middle class, atheist, liberal, etc. If one does not conform to these norms, they are looked down upon, there exists societal pressure to conform to the cultural identity of Bryn Mawr …. Bryn Mawr is above all else a sisterhood, a home, a community, and we must foster this sense of togetherness, by coming together and not isolating and discrimination against the variety of cultural identities which exist on our campus.6

I propose a mandatory seminar for first years … important for fostering inclusion, and will open dialogue within the community ….7

She closes the semester with a prediction of individual change that will have implications for the college:

nia.pike

Nia’s banner image from her end of semester portfolio.

I will never hide behind the expectations of others again …. I take from this class I greater understanding of myself …. accepting, and being proud of who I am ….This semester I unbound myself … just as the flowers use the wire as vines to grow up, I am going to use the bounds that once held me to blossom.8

Two semesters later, Nia and her roommate, who is from Georgia, hang a rainbow flag out of one of their dorm windows, and also display a Confederate flag, first in the hallway and then, after efforts to seek its removal, from their second window. They also lay a line of duct tape labeled “Mason-Dixon Line” in the passageway leading to their room.

Multiple dialogues — as well as lots of protesting, and lots of posturing — ensue. The media — first local, then national — picks up this story.9

Sara Ahmed writes, “The media is crucial … as the interface between an organization and its publics.”10

How much of what happens is the result of this interface? How might we speak to one another, in ways that are not driven by the framing of the news stories? How to make sense of the many narratives being generated, off-campus, on, and in-between?

What do they call for, by way of response, continued dialogue and learning?  And what are the sites where such conversations might be most productive?

An unlikely space for any sort of important-or-productive speaking is the monthly Bryn Mawr faculty meeting. And yet, in mid-September, as the president is describing various  interventions — she proposes, for instance, that we devote one day during the spring semester to “campus professional development” — I find myself on my feet, trying to puzzle through, in public, some of my most pressing private questions. In the company of more than a hundred colleagues, I ask how much power I-and-we have to direct the course of action here:

Anne DalkeI was raised in the rural South, and have long quipped that the longest trip I ever took was crossing the Mason-Dixon line.

This week I have been thinking that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Several of the student leaders are in my classes, and I have been spending lots of time, in class and outside, dealing with what has happened here. Colleagues and I have been talking about our role as faculty, thinking together about curricular changes that might address some of the gaps in our students’ education, how we might have failed to teach them ….

But this morning I learned that one of the students who displayed the flag had taken my introductory course in Critical Feminist Studies. I spent this afternoon re-reading her papers, and I began to see how the ideas of  identity, intersectionality, representation and signifying, which I had been talking about in that class, might been taken up very differently than I intended; the uptake was quite other than what I meant.

And so — as we plan these educational interventions, and I am all for them — I also want to add a note of humility: we do not know how our students will make use of what we give them. The gap between intention and uptake can be huge — as they struggle to make sense of their identities … and as we struggle to make sense of ours.

we do not know how our students will make use of what we give them. The gap between intention and uptake can be huge

Afterwards there are hugs from half-a-dozen colleagues, notes and verbal affirmations from a dozen others, and an emotional testimony from the president, who thanks me for what I said: “It’s something I will carry with me forever….”

I am more interested in how to carry this idea forward institutionally, in how to incorporate such awareness into the structures in which we teach. The wise advice of the educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, regarding the unpredictable “uptake” of our “teaching positions,” is not to try and control the responses they evoke, but rather to activate, explore, even celebrate the multiple subject positions that are called into play in such pedagogical exchange. It is an ongoing challenge for me to join Ellsworth in embracing varied uptakes, as palpable spaces of diversity, unruliness, and fertility where the “monstrous” can enter (and leave!) the classroom, in the guise of hunger, desire, fear, “ignor-ance” — and so be taken up, perhaps revised.11

  1. Critical Feminist Studies” (a course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2013), accessed July 17, 2015
  2. Wendy Brown,  “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics,” Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 115.
  3. nia.pike, “Breaking Down Boxes,” September 7, 2013 (3:51 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  4. nia.pike, “Avatar Name Change,” October 6, 2013 (9:04 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  5. nia.pike, “What is home?” November 6, 2013 (12:41 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  6. nia.pike, “Web event #2: Bryn Mawr: Community? Empowered? Sisterhood?” November 14, 2013 (11:56 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  7. nia.pike, “Final Web Event – Addressing Exclusiveness at Home at Bryn Mawr: A Seminar,” December 18, 2013 (11:03 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  8. nia.pike, “Unbinding Myself to Blossom,” December 19, 2013 (5:50 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  9. Students Rally After Confederate Flag Display,” NBC10.com (September 19, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Dave Huber, “Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College Dorm Causes Uproar,” The College Fix (October 5, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Susan Snyder, “Confederate Flag in Dorm Roils Bryn Mawr Campus,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Katilin Mulhere, “A Flag and Race at Bryn Mawr,” Inside Higher Ed (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Andy Thomason, “Confederate Flag Raises Controversy at Bryn Mawr College,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Steven Conn, “Callous or Callow: Waving the Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College,” The Huffington Post (October 7, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Eric Owens, “Tolerance and Diversity Cause FREAKOUT Over Confederate Flag at Fancypants Womens College,” The Daily Caller (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Nicole Lopez, et. al, “Petitioning Bryn Mawr College: Take the Necessary Actions as Requested by Current Students to Confront Issues of Institutional Racism on Campus, and to Create an Environment Safe for All Students” (October 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Jennifer Wilks, “Lessons of a Flag Flap,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 12, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017
  10. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 143.
  11. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997),  accessed July 17, 2015

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.

“Attunements to new lacerations”

Anne: When we present an early version of this chapter at the 2014 conference of the Society for Disability Studies, Riva Lehrer asks why we begin our challenge to access in “ambivalence, rather from the space that is implacable.” In giving our attention to the ambivalent interfaces of bodies and environment, she queries, are we refusing to acknowledge the reality of impairments that cannot be accommodated?

We know that many impairments cannot be accommodated. Can we enlarge our language and that of Disability Studies to accommodate this? I am re-tracing these questions, as my husband Jeff and I move slowly across a boardwalk, snaking through a bog in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. It is a rainy afternoon in August, and the walkway is slick. We know this, and are taking it gingerly, when, on an incline, I start to slip…and can’t stop. Seen from outside, the scene must be hilarious: I slide, and slowly turn, before landing (surely with a plop!) on my back, in the bog. Experienced from the inside, though, there is no room for laughter. As I slide, inexorably, and turn, inflexibly, I feel a pain–excruciating, in my right knee. When I try to get up, it’s totally non-negotiable: I cannot put any weight on my leg. And there it is, in a moment: the implacable.

Implacable, too, are my needs over the next few weeks, as I am displaced from agile mind to immobile body, as I hobble, and ice, and ask for assistance from Jeff who is, in turn, (un)fairly implacable in his judgment of what needs I (think I) have, what needs he thinks need meeting. We negotiate, or I do without, when he will not accommodate.

That fall, I return to Bryn Mawr, moving with less pain, although still using a cane–and encounter an agitated warning from our new access coordinator: all needs must be met. Or else. In a steadily rising tone, she writes me about the college’s legal obligations to a student who has told us of her needs too late for us to accommodate them all:

Part of the responsibility for this is [the student’s], however, legally the college would be found at fault, should she be so unhappy and decide to pursue it legally….[that the student] did not contact me until very late…in no way gives the college “wiggle room”; in the eyes of the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, colleges must be ready, yesterday, to have all materials ready for students who need accommodations ….There is to be no lag time or wait time for the student in terms of receiving materials in the appropriate format.

And yet, it turns out, there is nothing implacable there. Getting to know the student, introducing her to the administrator who is scanning our documents, we together work our way through the syllabus, identify what needs to be re-scanned to be made audible, agree to do so on a workable timetable.

A month after the administrator, my student and I reach accommodation, Riva arrives on campus, to serve as the creative consultant for a cluster of courses, a 360° I am co-teaching on “Identity Matters.”1 When Riva first comes to my class, she asks us all to begin to imagine–and then to draw–the “invisible body of desire”: what we would look like, if we were completely unbound by any restrictions? What could we do as an entity, if all constraints–gravity, time, whatever holds us back from being what whatever we might be (everything implacable?)–were lifted?

To get to this place, she asks us first to think to our last vacation, our last really enjoyable time–

I was on vacation when I slipped and tore that ligament–

and then back to a longer vacation, a time freed from responsibility and obligation, centered around what we always wanted to do–and then even further back, to the seventh grade, when we were beginning to dream about what we wanted to be. How were these states connected? Where did they make a “turn”? When did our desires change? What might have happened in our lives, if we had gotten to do completely what we wanted to do when we were twelve?

All constraints lifted, all choices totally open: what powers do we have? What are our minds and hearts good at doing? Peeling back from the everyday to much older motives: what moves us now at the essential level? “Build a body that lets you be that entity,” Riva says (as she has done, in a self-portrait called “At 54”):

12_Nine_RivaSelfPortrait
Riva Lehrer, “At 54,” acrylic and collage on paper, 2013.

Her invitation is a way to enter students’ psychic spaces, to seek, under their own direction, what they most long for–in the language of crip ecology, “to open up desire for what disability disrupts.”2

And so it is really Riva who articulates, first at the conference, then in my class, the tension that animates this chapter: the stretch between what is implacable, cannot be negotiated, and what is desired: flexible minds, bodies, social spaces. Mobile. Unbound. Pliable. Placable. Changing the circumstances in which the self finds herself. Mediating between what is necessary and what is impossible, what is wanted and what is do-able. In flesh and feeling, both constrained and reaching.

The swing between implacability and desire, between what cannot be negotiated and what can be dreamed, is ever on-going, always inviting renovation. I learn these lessons–the need to attend, the difficulty of doing so, the im/possibilities of responding appropriately, the invention of new possibles–again and again throughout the following semester, as Riva and I co-teach “Identity Matters” with  Kristin Lindgren, who directs Haverford College’s Writing Center, and Sarah Bressi, of Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Partly because of our topic, partly because of the structure of profound engagement that a 360° entails, partly because of the particular mix of individuals who gather to share this project, the work of this cluster makes transparent the on-going, back-and-forth, ever-unsettling and unsettled process of access and accommodation in teaching and learning. We desire. Adjust. Long for something more or else. Recalibrate. Thread in and out of our shifting environment.

For the twelve students enrolled in this particular group of courses, who represent a variety of classes, races, genders and dis/abilities, the focus on “identity matters” makes this project intensely personal from the get-go. Fed from multiple directions–the students’ own investments, and ours (Riva’s creative exercises, Kristin’s course on disability, Sara’s on aging, mine on feminism)–we give extended attention to the interpersonal dynamics of accessibility and accommodation, hold repeated discussions about how we speak with one another, how we listen to what was said, how we might grant respect to every class member. Wishing. Stumbling. Wanting. Exhausting. Aspiring. Up and through the semester’s end: on-going negotiating of constraints and longings. Our group effort constitutes another instantiation of “crip ecology,” shifting our environment as it shapes and shifts us.

Our classroom is filled with desires–all compelling, all legitimate–and incapable of being fulfilled in the same place at the same time. “Accommodation” is an “assembling” and re-assembling that never settles, is never fully accommodated.

Throughout this essay, we move from speaking of “access,” which signifies a capacious, radical vision of the equal participation in society of persons with disabilities; to describing “accommodation,” which signals more narrow, specific strategies (such as extra time for testing, or large print texts). We also evoke the concept of “universal design,” which, as Jay Dolmage observes, “often usefully syncs with” accommodation, but also critiques that model with a more profound sense of “the actual , tricky, ongoing negotiations of classroom practice,” a recognition that there will never be a “grand solution.”3

Our own relationship to each of these orientations also shifts from that of critique to syncopation and back again. For instance, we accept Jay’s description of universal design for learning as offering “places to start thinking, doing, acting and moving.” always aware that any teaching strategy that offers a “good solution in the classroom” will also inevitably create “conflicts of access.”4

My students’ postings form a collage of such conflicts: different, often competing, capacities and checks, needs and wants:

Hummingbird

I appreciated the energy our classroom discussion had today. I appreciate the passion, openness, and sincerity many of us brought to the classroom space. I also noticed some of us did not have the space to bring that passion, openness, and sincerity. There were interruptions, raised voices, and comments over each other. Can we work to maintain that passion and energy, and to also incorporate pauses in between our voices? Can we work on scanning the room and noticing when our peers are making an effort to interject but not finding a way? Can we try to be more aware of each other? Allow each other to finish our thoughts before jumping on? Checking in with our peers to make sure we haven’t skipped over a voice?5

Another student, who is a McBride (one of a cohort of women over the age of 24, who did not complete college immediately after high school), reports on the

khinchey
unexpected invisibility of being a McBride: my insecurities as an academic are reinforced through the narrative that I ‘don’t belong’ in the Bryn Mawr community with my non-normative timeline and my inability to succeed as a student in my first go at college. 6

Realizing that such anxieties frequently lead her to bring her personal experience into class discussion–and that these are significant expressions of her longing to belong–she challenges Hummingbird for using the privilege of upper-class politeness to silence her, refusing her the right to speak in her accustomed mode.

Other students, largely silent to this point, also begin to write about their experiences of the in/accessible:

Sunshine

When I said in class today that I was struggling with what was my own anxiety and what was the class dynamic, I was thinking about what were my own problems that I need to deal with versus what the other members could do to make the class accessible for those without anxiety. Because in my head that was all that was necessary. Make space for those without anxiety, and for people like me, with anxiety, it is all on me to create the rest of the space. But I am a member of the class, with anxiety. It is an intersectional identity, and I cannot remove myself from it. There is no way I can be a member of the class without anxiety, the same way I cannot be a member of the class who is not a cis woman or black.7

ndifrank

I too share a lot of these same feelings. I suffer from anxiety and I don’t feel comfortable always saying that out loud. My anxiety has shaped me into someone who tends to be a listener within the classroom…and a talkative person outside of the classroom. I really appreciated the conversation we had today and although I don’t believe we should have a fully structured course that includes hand raising or using cards, I still would appreciate more space to be who I am. [A classmate] brought up the idea of not wanting to have to shrink within the classroom and while I do agree with that, I am also grappling with the idea that the classroom only has so much space (our space being our time). One person taking up a lot of space causes another to take up less. I know that I don’t speak up that much within the class and it has always been a struggle for me. I am a victim of emotional abuse which included a lot yelling and chastizing that silenced me as a child.8



The student consultant we’ve engaged through Bryn Mawr’s Teaching and Learning Institute9 reports that one-or-some students think that I should intervene more in class, to keep people from getting cut off, and/or direct the discussion more. Knowing we disagree on what “respect” sounds like, and also that different ones of us prefer different pacings, I propose that we share this labor: asking for some other voices in the conversation, being more aware of what’s going on, not so caught up in what we want to say that we don’t look around, pay attention to others’ body language, making sure—especially if we’ve already spoken—that others aren’t wanting to speak before we speak again; try a breath inbetween. These gestures–pushing ourselves to speak if we haven’t, pushing ourselves to be still if we have already talked in any given session–are all forms of accommodation, ways in which we and our environment continue to respond to one another.

We expend much effort before recognizing the essential incompletability of this project. We can’t achieve the total access we desire–and we can’t stop trying to.We expend much effort before recognizing the essential incompletability of this project. We can’t achieve the total access we desire–and we can’t stop trying to.

At semester’s end, Hummingbird testifies that her contributions in class aren’t taken up in the way she expects. Her story is a tangle of not being able to understand, and of not being understandable, of her “words taking on meanings” she doesn’t intend. All of this in the context of love–of a deep, familial longing for connection:

Hummingbird

Not too long after we discussed deafness and Deaf culture in Kristin’s class, I dreamt that I had become entirely deaf. Friends and family members were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. In the dream, this deafness had occurred months before and I’d been taking a sign-language class in response. But when I tried to communicate with my family and friends with my elementary level sign language, I couldn’t fully express my feelings. When I spoke aloud, they told me I sounded entirely different and couldn’t understand me. I could think clearly what I wanted to express, but I had no way of expressing it. I felt entirely cut-off from the people I loved.10

In early November we are trained into a more disciplined practice of speaking and listening. We attend a public performance of “Two Women Talking,” by Bryn Mawr alum Monsoon Bissell and her good friend Benaifer Bhadha; then an all-day workshop, just for our group, on their “narrativ” method. Learning how to implement careful listening: to clear our minds of obstacles that might prevent us from being fully present and receptive, as we prepare “listening bowls” to catch one another’s stories. Gabby explains the first step: “Imagine that the words coming out of your mouth are filling a bowl. In order for your words to be received well you must ‘clear your bowl.’ Simply name all the things that may hinder you from listening.”11 Sula elaborates: “Take a moment and think about…the space you offer up when you agree to listen to someone. We all have a variety of bowls (shallow, deep, tall, wide), and we are offering up our biggest bowl when we are most ready to listen.”12 During the weeks after, we are able to put such exercises to repeated good use in class. I am particularly heartened when some students who have been in conflict organize their own “listening conversations,” and report back that they’ve learned to “widen and deepen” their bowls.

And yet, as the semester draws to a close, two other students, who are very angry with one another, are telling the same story: each posts something on-line that gets no response, and so feels invisible, not listened to. Two others tell counter-stories: they read their classmates’ posts, have no words to respond. I observe that we all have been, and have had, sustained silent readers throughout the semester. Sometimes we don’t realize this: we are being seen, listened to.

When we gather for our last class, I invite the students into a closing ceremony, designed by Alice Lesnick, which figures this understanding. Calling attention to the beautiful bowl I have set in the center of our circle, “fragile but capable of holding whatever we put in it,” I instruct the students to place in the vessel something they want to leave there; then, on a second round, to demonstrate and articulate what they are carrying out. To do this in an embodied way, considering the shape and weight of these things….

I say, drawing on a powerful image offered by Bridget, that the bowl “has been here all along, and it isn’t yet filled.” I see it holding Gabby’s fear that our upcoming public listening conversation “isn’t focused where our priorities should be, on police brutality,” Natalie’s sense of “being suffocated by too much information,” Rhett’s apology for his lack of presence, Amelia’s awareness of our continued “shared martyrdom,” Sula’s “feeling bad that she’s not feeling bad.”

The “listening bowl” marks the fullness of possibility, without insisting on its full realization (which probably, anyway, can’t be found in words…). Learning what is wanted is a process. The bowl is both a metaphoric way for each of us to attend to what one another has to say, and–without choosing one mode of access over another, or ever reaching full accommodation–it figures a means of experiencing the material classroom, intermittently, as an “imagined community.”13

This, again, is ecology “cripped,” unsettling what we think we know in favor of interruption and disturbance, unveiling new imaginings that unfold in how we live our lives, enact our selves, interact with all that surrounds and moves through us.

There are, to be sure, cracks in this bowl. But there’s a sufficiency here, too–and a space to hold it all. Longings deeply linked with the capacity to imagine otherwise. Filled with failure that is also, always, a mark of desire.  A “holding environment”14 –not as permanent, but as a space of learning, to return to as needed.

  1. Identity Matters: Being, Belonging, Becoming.”A 360° cluster offered in Fall 2014, Bryn Mawr College. 
  2. Elizabeth Chandler, “Cripping Community: New Meanings,” No More Pot Lucks, September 5, 2013, accessed July 28, 2016.
  3. Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design.”
  4. Dolmage, “Universal Design.”
  5. Hummingbird, “A Plea for Space,” October 2, 2014 (5:27 p.m.).
  6. khinchey, “On Still Not Having All the Answers,” December 18, 2014 (11:23 p.m.).
  7. Sunshine, “What Is Accessible?” October 7, 2014 (11:34 p.m.).
  8. ndifrank, “Thoughts about our talk and invisible diablities,” October 8, 2014 (1:35 a.m.). 
  9. Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.”
  10. Hummingbird, “Communication?: a Self-Reflection,” December 18, 2014 (8:54 p.m.).
  11. Gabrielle Smith, “Let’s Chat,” Final Booklet, December 9, 2014.
  12. Sula Malina, “Bryn Mawr’s ‘L’ Word: “Listening,” Final Booklet, December 9, 2015.
  13. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,revised edition (Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2006).
  14. Cf. D.W. Winnicott, Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (1957-1963; rpt. London: Karnac Books,1996).

“Living out relationality”

Kevin: Jody’s description of “access as a process of reassembling” puts me in mind of the work of anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, who, in Ordinary Affects, attempts to capture the slow ooze, a “dragging undertow” of affective contemporary experience. Stewart borrows from Raymond Williams’s formulation of “structures of feeling” to find forms of life woven in and through everyday moments. The ordinary has “the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, and emergences,” Stewart writes. Ordinary affects are “things that happen.”1

To register affective “contact zones” for analysis, Stewart writes in the third person: “I call myself ‘she’ to mark the difference between this writerly identity and the kind of subject that arises as a daydream of simple presence.”2 In so doing, the researcher-subject is not so much in pursuit of anything more definitive than herself as a point of contact. She looks, waits, performs, imagines. Ultimately, she suggests what a scene might offer.

I experiment.

He experiments.

His family moved to Tokyo from New Jersey when he was five. One night, there was an earthquake. It was either the offshore Sanriku earthquake in December of 1994 or the Kobe earthquake of January 1995. With his family members, he took turns sitting in a recliner chair in their living room because the springs in the seat transferred the dull shaking they couldn’t feel standing around. He remembers thinking that they should get under the tables like he practiced at school, but no one sensed the urgency like he did. He hadn’t grasped yet that danger could have gradients. That’s not what the drills at school were designed to convey, anyway.

Developmental psychologists say that a number of crucial things begin to happen between the ages of five and six for neurotypical children like this one. The child will learn to reason, follow rules, and be fair. He will begin to understand space and time, color, sorting and organization. He will be able to tell a story. He may begin to have organized, continuous memories. But all that we do not know: How does something like an earthquake shake up what the child knows? What do the chancy adventures in a foreign city do to who he later became?

His mother was reading him a bedtime story on the couch. She had just eaten a banana. With a flare of whimsy that was impressive for the working mother wrangling two young kids in a foreign city, she asked how fast he could run to the trashcan and back before she started the story. He made it to the kitchen. He remembers turning the corner on his way back. And then he remembers sitting on the counter some moments later with blood coming down his face.

He had tripped somewhere down the final stretch. His big toe might have snagged on the carpet and his face went crashing into the corner of the coffee table. His eyebrow had split open. Later he was told that if he had tripped on a piece of the carpet inches away, it would have been his eye itself, not the brow.

The self unstable. More disabled.

His mom likes to tell the story of him on the way to the emergency room. He asked whether he looked like a football player. He turned to his mom with cautious glee and asked, “Isn’t this a little exciting?”

There was a decision to be made about the cut. The doctors could stitch it up and he would lose most of the eyebrow, or they could put what’s called “butterfly bandage” over it, which is a small adhesive strip that stretches over a thin laceration to hold it together. Stitches would ensure a clean and fast healing process but with more scarring. A butterfly bandage would mean less scarring, but also less certainty that he wouldn’t accidentally open the wound again, which was already on a fairly active part of the face. His mom wanted him to have an eyebrow. He got the butterfly bandage.

Twenty years later as he reads and writes, he rubs his fingers over his scarred eyebrow, where there is a thin line of hair missing. This is not a conscious habit, just a repetitive motion while he’s thinking. But when he remembers the scar he pauses to think how it must look: twenty years later and he’s still feeling to see if it’s healed.

Who is the child with a butterfly bandage? This question is less important than the ordinary affects this scene tells of. Disability is an apparitional affect outside of its identity formation. That is, we know something about disability even when it is not an identity we inhabit. Disability Studies has long insisted on the universality of “temporary able-bodiedness.” In recent years, disability scholars, dissatisfied with being treated as the youngest kid on the identity politics block, have made the case that disability urges us to reconsider all identity formations as more mutable than we allow. In “The End of Identity Politics,” for example, Lennard Davis writes, “What we are discussing is the instability of the category of disability as a subset of the instability of identity in a postmodern era.” If identity politics rely on a legible distinction between who does and does not occupy certain subjectivities, disability is that which cannot be made to function in a system of exclusion. “Rather than ignore the unstable nature of disability,” Davis continues, “rather than try to fix it, we should amplify that quality.”3 A “dismodernist” identity politics, beyond a postmodern one.

Lingering in the fracture, the broken.

Imagining a crip identification, despite the fear that privilege will flood a minority category and displace our sensitivity to differentially distributed power: Can the child with the butterfly bandage be said to have registered a crip moment?

Robert McRuer inaugurated what he calls “crip theory” by leveling unlikely identifications at the heart of how an orientation to disability might be a necessary strategy to resist neoliberalism’s mishandling of marginalized subjects. After describing the ordinary affects of his partner, he asks readers to imagine their crip identification:

Crip theory might function as a body of thought, or as thought about bodies, that allows for assertions like the following: if it’s not even conceivable for you to identify as or with Brazilian, gay, immigrant workers with multiple sclerosis, then you’re not yet attending to how bodies and spaces are being materialized in the cultures of upward redistribution we currently inhabit. 4

To be injured or to be diseased is not to be disabled. But it does mean that one must reckon with how disability makes a productive problem for ideologies of ability that make able-bodiedness seem invisible, natural or normal. One experiences the stakes of disability whether or not one is disabled. Crip moments abound, exposing able-bodiedness as fragile, tentative, and ultimately impossible.

What the critical impulse needs is some attunement to the new experience of a laceration, a way of letting the body (of thought) heal into its new state.

The butterfly bandage is an epistemological as well as experiential frame. The butterfly suture incorporates repair and precarity into dynamic balance. Stitches provide certainty that a wound won’t open, but only by making more incisions. The butterfly suture never promises certainty that the wound won’t open again, but it’s not as if healing is less important. The butterfly bandage keeps things delicate. The butterfly itself suggests a certain gentleness and sensitivity. It encourages you to check your wound often, to make sure things are progressing okay.

As Bruno Latour says, critique as the humanistic modus operandi has “run out of steam,”5 because its openings require too many punctures. Strong interventions have tradeoffs. The repair one enacts when announcing that “excluded here is any account of X” is fleeting and unsustainable. What the critical impulse needs is some attunement to the new experience of a laceration, a way of letting the body (of thought) heal into its new state.

  1. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007, 2.
  2. Stewart,Ordinary Affects, 5.
  3. Davis, “End of Identity Politics,” 26.
  4. McRuer, Crip Theory, 76.
  5. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, 2 (Winter 2004), 225-248. 

“Residing in the intersection”

Jody: I, too, use fabric to trace an intersection–in a collection of cloth figures that both connect and distance. In her essay “Reviewing Eve,” Nancy Miller describes an installation Eve Sedgwick created in the CUNY Grad Center English Dept. lounge. Sedgwick used cloth figures she had made—stuffed forms dressed in blue leggings and tunics, draped with woven cloth, hung from the ceiling–and distributed a screed she called “in the bardo,” about the “between-state” that immediately follows death.  In Tibetan, “bar” means in-between, “do” means suspended, thrown.  Miller explicates this:

the figures’ strongest representational ties are to the disorienting and radically denuding bodily sense generated by medical imaging and illness itself, on the one hand; and on the other, to material urges to dress, ornament, to mend, to re-cover and heal.…the wordless figures invited us to meditate on the process of coming to terms with the contours and accidents that shape any given life.1

I use this installation to evoke my sense of self, emerging from “the contours and accidents” that have shaped my life. I’m someone who tends to see and present myself as (relatively) “normal,” “stable,” a “coherent self.’” I speak from the vantage point of “outside disability,” although also striving to be inside it, to better understand.

When I mark myself as “normal,” I not-incidentally conjure you as with me in this, or not: as abnormal.  As Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne suggested some years ago, “no ability, no disability; no disability, no ability”; likewise, no “normal” without “abnormal.”2 When I claim “normal,” I tap into the you waiting in the wings to be called forth as somehow, well, fucked up.  More recently, Lennard Davis has argued that “all groups, based on physical traits or markings, are selected for disablement by a larger system of regulation and signification.”3 And what if your “trait or markings” are not perceptible, are mental or cognitive rather than physical, or physical but not visibly marked; what if you are not externally recognizable?

I write this, knowing all the while that this is a painting over of cracks and crevices, some dark corners, limits and scary places that I’ve visited not-so-willingly at particularly challenging times in my life, and some that I’ve not visited.  At times I’ve longed to go there, to these places, but also haven’t wanted to be there; except maybe for brief spurts like under the influence of hallucinogens.  So yes, I have always been both resistant and strongly drawn to darker, scarier, unknown and unknowable places–in myself and in others–and these “places” are actually anywhere:  to be found right beneath my feet, gazing down into the depth of grimy sparkle in a city sidewalk.

When I was coming up in the square-plotted walled-in suburb of my childhood, I was fascinated by and intensely drawn to the worlds of people then labeled “handicapped” and “mentally ill”: read their stories voraciously; sought out these “others” in my work as a teenager with other teenagers then called “blind and multiply handicapped,” and later with the heavily gated and sedated so-called “chronically mentally ill” at St. Elizabeth’s, where I fantasized that I could take home (?!) an older woman with multiple diagnoses with whom I was–how can I say it but, in love.

But now I ask myself, how “outside” was this when this “otherness” lurked yes, right in my own family–-my grandfather and uncle suicides, my aunt and cousins profoundly depressed and diagnosed with “psychoses” of various kinds and taking (or not) various cocktails? And here’s a wall: my own parents seeing and presenting themselves as “the stable ones,” and my mom in a constant tension with my aunt over this intense splitting, even now with my aunt many years gone.

In his focus on disability as the physically marked–what artist Riva Lehrer describes as “the great billboard of bodily truth”4–Davis does not attend to those mentally “marked” by “accidents of brain chemistry,” as my daughter recently termed her state of being.  And if not accidental but plotted somehow, then where in my family album of mental markings are the genomes, and what does this signify?

Telling stories about race, Davis writes,  “Eugenics told us one thing about race and genes, social construction told us quite another; but if race is not in the human genome, how then are we to make sense of “genetic markers for disability, defect, and disease?”5  If difference is genetically marked, what then of the differences of mind, perception, interaction that characterize the (how many) mental differences detailed exhaustively in the DSM VI?  And what difference does this make, or: what does the story of genetic marking do here? And to what work might it lead me?

Some years ago I had this dream: I was lying in a bunk bed next to my daughter. She must’ve been about sixteen years old.  Someone else was in the bed with us too, a male, shadowy.  I was just waking up, turning toward her when S opened her mouth and bared a set of large, sharp, and frightening teeth, animal teeth.

At that time S had been diagnosed (first by herself, then by a psychologist) and was dealing with OCD.  Being her mom put me face to face, scarily right up close to this “other-ness”:  We are in our living room and she’s entering a panic attack–obsessing on a girl in high school who said something, I don’t remember what; she scissors off her new dreadlocks and then screams at her shorn head, frightening my son in the next room; yet another teacher is telling me how silent she is.  Most unnervingly, we are travelling and she is convinced we’re being followed, doesn’t feel safe in our hotel room, or on the beach at our favorite pond, or really anywhere; we are at a profound home place for me–very beautiful, and so even more frightening.  The darkness is in the beauty in a way that I had been inviting and fighting all my life.

In order to be S’s mother, I need to find in me the capacity to face the parts of her–and myself–that are NOT “normal,” “coherent,” “stable.”   To acknowledge in myself the cracks between my aunt and my mom, the gaping holes left by suicides, the internal emptiness of the “strange stranger,” as eco-critic Timothy Morton describes the self.6 )  The non-negotiable demand of this is the greatest gift anyone could have given me.  A gift that rescues me from the seductiveness of the ordinary, opens me to the wildness often relegated to animals; that makes searingly evident how we are all implicated in the web of difference, of disability, each “role” dependent upon another.

The postmodern view of identity put forward by Stuart Hall7 and others might suggest that the question of a link between my daughter’s make-up and my own is differently relevant when we see it in the context of partiality and hybridity. Davis takes this notion further, arguing for a “dismodern subject…whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence….all humans are seen as wounded…impairment is the rule and normalcy is the fantasy.”8  Access, then, might bear re-visioning:  what to value, what to desire?

In describing a presentation featuring photographs of jarred fetuses as “specimens of disabled bodies,” Riva Lehrer talks about a “narrative stripping”: “biography is peeled away until nothing is left but naked diagnosis.” As a person with spina bifida, she has “no spina bifida elders, to show me how to live.”9

Now recognized and diagnosed more widely, OCD does seem to run in my family, where many of the cousins deal with this mental “marking.” My daughter is the elder, a position that has both challenged and strengthened her as she has become an advisor–on therapy, medication, and daily life.  And I am also in this flux, my learning self colliding with her realities, the trash that taunts her on the streets, other material stuff that she interacts with daily – stuff that now enters my realities.  And so we are all networked, though so little is understood about what it might mean to have this marking or that; still, the genetic story helps me here to know my humanness, my connections with what is visible to me and what I don’t yet know.

I query, again, the construct of “accommodations.” If “dis/ability” is indeed, as we have posited, a web with all of us implicated, then it seems problematic to conceptualize “accommodations” in terms that rely so strongly on a notion of “regular,” what some people can do that becomes the standard against which “others” cannot.

Play theorist Stuart Brown asks when fidgety-ness became ADHD.10 This is a schooled designation, too-often raced, classed, and gendered, too-frequently used to contain and isolate boys of color.

What if instead we looked to these children as leaders, who could show us the constrictions of the classroom, help us discover what’s possible in their rough play?  What could we learn about access that would meet Davis’s “ethic of liberation” for all of us?

And so it is critical that when S bares her animal-teeth, I turn not away but toward her, grafting “abnormal” and “normal,” living out relationality, reveling in the interdependence that Sedgwick calls love. Access–to one another and to ourselves–then becomes a process that we are always starting again and over, reassembling.

If on some level we are strangers, not only to each other but also to ourselves, and if at the same time we have a capacity to discover this, to become if only for a moment less estranged, it seems problematic that people with “disabilities” should be positioned to do this, to go deep, while others ride the “normal” curve. For instance, as I trace this “stranger-ness,” this incoherence of self, back through my mom’s family, up through my daughter, and into my own self, a different question emerges for me: whether and what I, any of us does with this potentiality. And if it were understood that this is the question and a possibility for all of us–if, for example, we were to recognize all that is going on in a space, say a classroom, that isnot “readable” or even necessarily knowable by others or by oneself–our orientation to questions of “access” might also shift dramatically.

In her remembrance of Sedgwick, Nancy Miller writes,

Opening the door to the past as the necessary preliminary to change is never easy, but here it’s not the past tense of memory that hurts the most. [And then Eve herself:]  “No, the harder part is telling it now; choosing now to thread the viscera of the labyrinth of
what I didn’t know,
and when I didn’t know it,
and what that felt like.”
…Eve explicates what love means to her: the connection of an intimacy without which “both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment.”11

And so it is critical that when S bares her animal-teeth, I turn not away but toward her, grafting “abnormal” and “normal,” living out relationality, reveling in the interdependence that Sedgwick calls love. Access–to one another and to ourselves–then becomes a process that we are always starting again and over, reassembling.  The bed that my toothy daughter and I share (with a strange male) is a space of unease and promise, a space where we re-create access in our continual willingness to re-engage and re-enter–to teach and learn with each other.

  1. Nancy Miller, “Reviewing Eve,” Regarding Sedgwick: Essays on Queer Culture and Critical Theory, ed. Stephen Barber and David Clark (New York: Routledge, 2002), 222.
  2. Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, “Culture as Disability,” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-348. 
  3. Davis, “The End of Identity Politics,” 275.
  4. Riva Lehrer, “Jarred: Self Portrait in Formaldehyde,” talk presented at the Chicago Humanities Festival, November 11, 2014.
  5. Davis, “The End of Identity Politics,” 266.
  6. Timothy Morton, “Practising Deconstruction in the Age of Ecological Emergency,” in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 160-161.
  7. Stuart Hall, “The Question of Cultural Identity,” in Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Studies, Ed. Stuart Hall, David Held, Don Hubert and Kenneth Thompson (Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), 596-631.
  8. Davis, “The End of Identity Politics,” 276.
  9. Lehrer, “Jarred.”
  10. Stuart Brown, “Play, Spirit, and Character,” On Being with Krista Tippett, June 19, 2014. 
  11. Miller, “Reviewing Eve,” 218-219.

“Part of what I am is the enigmatic traces of others”

—Judith Butler, Precarious Life

Clare: My story begins with a pair of gloves acquired only months ago.  It had been an especially cold winter, and I was rummaging through my family’s disparate collection of winter accessories in search of warm gloves.  I stumbled across an old pair of my great aunt’s, which were given to her by my mom only a few Christmases before she passed away.  They’re quite stiff, and it’s obvious they have hardly been worn.  My aunt had received them right when her outings began to dwindle, when driving and traveling had become all the more difficult with age.

When I first held the gloves in my hands I felt close to my aunt.  I imagined her ten fingers snuggly encased within their fleece lining and was comforted that mine, too, would be similarly enclosed.  I stared for moments at a particular mark on the left glove. Mary (or “Auntie M” as she affectionately liked to be called after Dorothy’s aunt in the Wizard of Oz) was a heavy smoker. I remember sitting on the front porch of my grandmother’s home in Scranton, Pennsylvania when I was about five years old, and suggesting to M that I would stop sucking my pacifier, as per a desperate plea from my dentist, if she promised not to smoke.  It was then, at a young age (although too old, I’m certain, to be resolutely attached to my pacifier) that I was already placing myself within an economy of exchange, one in which our own vices, our own mechanisms for coping with an uncertain world, would be swapped for the other.

The mark on the glove seems to be the result of the accidental stumbling of her cigarette, in which its sultry tip had briskly touched the garment’s exterior, gently melting some of the little puckered holes decorating its surface into a soft imprint.  The blot emerged, in my minutes of recollection, as a story of an un-narrated moment—one that wasn’t disclosed until the aftermath of Mary’s death.  The glove enacted a crumpling of time; it allowed, if only momentarily, past and future to touch.

I lost the glove one evening as my family was forced to evacuate a burning restaurant.  The restaurant ended up being fine, and I wasn’t so much worried about the lost glove itself as I was about Mary.  It was the doubleness of the displacement, of my aunt and now her object, which distressed me the most.  And yet, there seems to be something about clothing that is much more about distance than intimacy, about loss rather than gain.  In the end, this un-pairing of the glove seems fitting.  When my “Auntie M” passed, we were literally unpaired, our treasured dyad ruptured.

My sister has always staunchly insisted that she won’t wear dead people’s clothes.  In my work on textiles, I’ve come to the conclusion that all clothes are the product of ghosted or dead bodies, which is precisely why I find them so compelling.  As Karl Marx would have it, the commodity always obfuscates the touchof its producers.  Our clothes, then, are never our own.   As much as cloth is about belonging—about obtaining the proper fit—it engenders absence as well as presence, injury in addition to reparation.

I am left with one glove rather than two, a glove that now has very little “use value” without its other mate.  My hope was that Mary’s glove might be found when the snow finally defrosts beneath the warmth of an arriving spring.  But maybe it’s better that the lost glove remains lost.  Both in scholarship and life, I’ve been invested in probing the gap between fabric and flesh, cloth and body, and I wonder what possibilities exist in this empty space.  I’m sure “M” would have loved the story about her glove being left behind during my family’s evacuation from a restaurant with nothing more than a clogged hood in their kitchen.  I can hear her giggle.  That makes me smile.

What this story reveals for me is how narratives congeal around the hybridization of subject and object.  In reconsidering how I’ve shaped this personal narrative, I wonder in what ways I have mimicked myself to and against my analysis

In one of my graduate seminars, we’ve been talking about “writerly” fidelity. The class discussed how we see this made legible in the mimetic relation between self and object of study. This “fidelity” or faithfulness to ideas might be said to surface in theoretical texts that introduce personal narratives where the individual voice “ruptures” more traditional, objective theorizations.  And yet, I wonder, is any act of writing—or any mode of articulation—really intimate, with self and object thoroughly sutured? To write is to exteriorize; thoughts flow from the channels of the mind to the tips of the fingers, finally surfacing on paper or screen.  We might say that the self is always “othered” in the very process of writing, that to write is to perform a splitting or severing of identity.  So much of who we are is dependent upon mediation and the difficulties that ensue in these processes of translation.

And so, I rethink the way I tell this story of my aunt through her garment. The gloves mediate my own grief and stand in, if temporarily, for her absence.  They bind aunt and niece across time and the chasms imposed by death.  The story is one of recollection and recursivity, of returning to consider where the self lies in its disappearance, in memory, narrative, and the things we leave behind.

“Keeping the question of who we are permanently open”

—Judith Butler, “Toward an Ethics of Cohabitation”

In October 2013, Clare and Kevin lead a workshop for the students in Anne’s Critical Feminist Studies course. Building on our discussions about accessibility, they call this a “crip classroom,” and experiment with pacing the discussion—going as fast, then as slow as possible—as they introduce the students to the concepts of “crip time”:

Within the disability community, many use the term…to signify a flexible approach to temporal demands… As Alison Kafer explains, “Crip time is flex time not just expanded but exploded; it requires reimaging our notions of what can and should happen in time….Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock, crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds.”1

“Bending time” by enacting varied pacing in the classroom, Clare and Kevin “enable” me and my students to experience some of the problematics of such an intervention: Going slow enables some students, disables others; going fast, ditto. Switching back and forth confuses us all. In our first shared experiment in access configuration, we realize that giving everyone in the room as many accommodations as possible can quickly become overwhelming—and may not be effective. Where, here, are the limits of accommodation? When-and-how might “accessibility” become “excessibility”?2

We’d like to do a better job at this.

The following week, Clare, Kevin and I attend a conference on “Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education,” organized by Stephanie Kershbaum and Margaret Price at the University of Delaware.3 The conference models a variety of approaches to access. Stephanie and Margaret report that they “worked to reduce and eliminate fragrances…offered a quiet room…assembled a schedule that provided ample down-time opportunity…provided photographs of conference spaces accompanied by crowd-sourced descriptions; and…integrated interaction badges…to provide a means for participants to nonverbally signal their preferred level of interaction.”4 This impressive range of interventions also marks, however, the impossibility of full access, as conflicts arise between those who require multi-sensory modes of access and those who find them distracting, those who need guide dogs and those who are allergic to them, those who request the assurance of safe spaces and those who recognize the unpredictability of triggers. Stephanie and Margaret themselves reflect on a number of other “inaccessible elements” in the event, raising “vital questions about the range of bodies and minds ‘allowed’ in academia”: those present are “overwhelmingly white,” “healthy and well enough to travel…can afford to spend three days in a rarefied space engaging in intellectual and social conversation, and…can procure institutional funding or other financial support.”5

Nearly a year later, at the June 2014 conference of the Society of Disability Studies, Jody joins Clare, Kevin and me on a panel reflecting further on some of the problematics of disclosure and accommodation.6  The four of us perform our various vulnerabilities, privileges and interdependencies through multiple modalities. We theorize accessibility, in front of videos of us telling stories from our lives.We are all also knitting, a practice that enacts a kind of “absent” presence of mind, while allowing us to hold in our hands the richness of the threads we are trying to weave together here. In doing so, we are, in part,celebrating accessibility, the way knowledge blossoms when we tear down barriers and fiercely commit ourselves to inclusion. We are also demonstrating how Disability Studies nuances our understanding of identity politics, challenging what we mean when we talk about self and social world as stable entities. Joining the field of Disability Studies in building an expansive notion of access, we are also querying a key presumption underlying that concept.  We wonder how our multi-modal performance invites some in, others not; whether our very efforts to communicate with multiple, diverse beings in the room might itself be overwhelming, non-communicative.

As commonly defined and pursued, access requires a stable self and world. Much of the scholarship now bridging queerness and disability,7 however, refuses to “crystallise identity in any specific form,” and so brings analytical pressure to bear on “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning where the constituent elements…can’t be made…to signify monolithically.”8

This sort of thinking has a long history. Theodor Adorno anticipated it, for example, when he offered the term “nonidentity” to describe the slippage between a concept and the material of that thing: “What we may call the thing itself is not positively and immediately at hand.”9 Nonidentity, Adorno said, accounts for that nagging feeling that something is being left out of the way we know things–what Jody elsewhere calls “haunting.”10 No concept (no person, no thing) is singular or unified; no word exhausts the thing conceived. There is a chasm between reality and the language we use to grapple with that reality. Nonidentity is “heterogeneous” to all concepts, and “negative dialectics” is the method Adorno gave us for attuning to that “remainder.”

We find Adorno’s concept of non-identity, as that which always escapes from the inadequate container that is language, useful as a means of problematizing the process of giving access. At a time when contemporary disability theory is offering competing ideas about how we should conceptualize “identity” (for example, Lennard Davis tolling the “end of identity politics”11 while Tobin Siebers calls for identity politics “in a new register”12), we are taken by a term, nonidentity, that at first seems to negate identity altogether, but in fact provides the basis for a positive affiliation across difference. A serious attunement to non-identity gives us a route to reconceptualize accessibility, as process that can be pursued when none of us fully knows, nor can fully express, either who we are or what we need.In Disability Studies, a field that is so deeply invested in identity, we relish a concept that allows us to think of our being bound together by what exceeds conventional identity categories (the disabled, the temporarily able-bodied).

Nonidentity is a key insight in ecological thinking, too.  In a world filled with “fundamentally uncanny and unfathomable” entities, Timothy Morton observes, “life is non-identical to itself.”13 Beginning with such a concept of nonidentity, a more fluid, unbounded version of the self, invites us to acknowledge both the implacable particularities of individual impairment and a more “relational ontology,” with flux and flow as the intermediaries of power. Agency becomes tied up, entangled in the twisted social world. Attending to such synergies bears an ethical force; in the language of physicist Karen Barad, it demands a “responsibility for the reconfigurings of which we are a part.”14

How then to take up that responsibility? How to design for access? What does it mean to acknowledge the problematics of disclosure, the unpredictability of uptake, the likelihood of being taken unawares?

At the conference, we reimagine accessibility not as replacement or retrofit, more as an ambient ubiquitous interface, which cannot readily be pinned down.  Our ruminations about the impossibility of full access draw on our own experiences, as well as on many contemporary theorists, within and outside of Disability Studies,15 who work their way beyond the conceptualization of a stable self in a stable social order.

In critiquing the too-ready legibility of disability, the four of us look not to redefine the concept of access, but to re-imagine its structure; we do so by following the many ways in which Disability Studies is reshaping what we know about both identity and sociality. Our unravelings do not take access or accommodation lightly. We are not disregarding the ways in which access can make a difference in an ableist world; we are also not claiming that Disability Studies stops where the category of disability does, that disability itself has clear edges. Wanting to see Disability Studies cited in all the domains it is poised to reinvigorate, we enact some of this reach, critically examining what gets called identity, experimenting with how far out these categories might stretch.

Disability is not its own self-identical thing; there are strong differences among those who are assigned, or choose, that identity.16 Crossing the dividing line between disabilities that are stable enough to request predictable accommodations, and those that are not, means challenging presumptions about knowability, both of who we are and what we need.  It means that access will always be not-entirely-known. There are no guarantees in this unpredictable process: a clarity of uptake not assumed, the outcome of calls for accessibility ultimately unreliable.

Clare, Jody, Kevin and I situate our alliance in several connected and disconnected positions, telling stories of our own various disablings and enablings, from the perspectives of “selves” working our relations to the field of Disability Studies and “others” who im/possibly exist outside it, as well as from cracks within and between all these. We find our mode of residence in the crevices among disparate locales: spaces that are both personal and scholarly, pragmatic and abstract, real and imaginary. We’re interested in how voices intersect in moments of “access,” and figure here a continual shift in perspective, one grounded in our conviction that the self is never fully situated, thoroughly placed, or entirely anchored.

  1. Kristin Lindgren, “(S)paces,” 121.
  2. Notes Towards Day 13: Cripping and Excessability,” Critical Feminist Studies, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2013, October 22, 2013. 
  3. Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education,” University of Delaware, October 25-27, 2013.
  4. Stephanie Kerschbaum and Margaret Price, “Perils and Prospects of Disclosing Disability Identity in Higher Education,” March 3, 2014. 
  5. Kerschbaum and Price, “Perils and Prospects.”
  6. Jody Cohen, Anne Dalke, Kevin Gotkin and Clare Mullaney, “Intervening in the Accessible: Reassembling the Social in Disability Studies,” panel at the Society of Disability Studies, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 13, 2014.
  7. Cf. Robert McRuer, “Cripping Queer Politics, or the Dangers of Neoliberalism,” The Scholar & Feminist Online 10.1-10.2 (Fall 2011/Spring 2012). 
  8. Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York University, 1996), 99-100. 
  9. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Second Edition (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1981), 5.
  10. Chapter Three, “Haunting.”
  11. Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category.” The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis. Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006.
  12. Tobin Siebers, “Disability and the Theory of Complex Embodiment–For Identity Politics in a New Register,” Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008
  13. Timothy Morton, “Practising Deconstruction in the Age of Ecological Emergency,” in Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, ed. Greg Garrard (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 162.
  14. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), 91.
  15. Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996); Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015); Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category.” The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis. Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006); Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design: Places to Start,” DSQ: Disability Studies Quarterly 35, 2 (2015); Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2005).
  16. Cf. Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, “Examined Life,” YouTube video, 14:23, October 6, 2010.