Fighting Monsters Without Becoming One Part 1:
Last week, I discussed aesthetics as a reference point for disability culture. But, what is meant by “disability culture”? A group of people united by limitations? Certainly not! In the words of the young Nietzsche to Wagner: “Let such “serious” readers learn something from the fact that I am convinced that art represents the highest and the truly metaphysical task of this life, in the sense of that man to whom, as my sublime predecessor on this path, I wish to dedicate this essay.”2 (Nietzsche 1872/1888/ Kaufmann 1967 p.32) Hence, as my predecessor Nietzsche has taught me, my work is not to judge the pros and cons of disability culture. I am not that “serious”. Viewed from pros and cons, disability culture becomes a hindrance and resignation to one’s limits; an enfeebling philosophy shy of life’s rich potential. I view life as an artist does: rich in both comedy and tragedy.
Rather than as a pro or con, a culture of disability is based on everything a person is capable of becoming both in spite of disabilities and because of them. To this end, it is a multivoiced body. It is a clamoring of noble voices and individual experiences with disabilities all vying for dominion over the position of limited bodies. The body can be can be absent (The Absent Body by Drew Leder: 1990), it can even make a difference (The Difference That Disability Makes by Rod Michalko 2002), expressed as a biomedical condition, or even stay silent. (The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled by Robert F. Murphy: 1987), As I will demonstrate, Nietzsche’s twin abysses continually gaze into the multivoiced body of disability culture. All these voices answer, question, and stare back at disability; the question is how to bring them together for the positive notion of disability culture I have just described. I answer with help from Nietzsche and the multivoiced body.
It is Nietzsche that Fred Evans characterizes as valorizing the creative and destructive forces of nature, and hence the multivoiced body: “Nietzsche says that events in the world of contesting value-creating powers do not have essences and that “purposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function.”3 (Evans 2009 p.26) It is exactly this character of function that disability culture seeks to redefine. Hence, following Evans, I will use Nietzsche’s idea of will to power to define three “voices” of disability culture, and how they interact with each other and those outside it; chiefly the medical perception of disability as a limitation or defect. In so doing however, I am not claiming that one is better than the other. My goal is to show how disability culture can accept the benefits of able-bodied society and the medical community while still asserting its own different voices. In exploring each “voice” of disability culture, one must Evan’s words, “exclude the excluders.”
The first “voice of disability culture” is the phenomenological view, best articulated, I feel by Drew Leder’s notion of dys-appearance in The Absent Body: “These problematic situations initiate dys-appearance through a variety of mechanisms. Sensations of pain and discomfort exert an immediate call.”4 (Leder 1990 p. 86) According to Leder, thematizations of the body and error only come up when physical mastery is questioned, and sensorimotor error is remembered in dys-appearance. The task of disability culture viewed from phenomenology is the representation of dys-appearance as part of an everyday experience in the absent body. The resulting “community” might be able to characterize disability as such an everyday part of life.
The focus of Drew Leder is the lived person, who can exist seemingly without body awareness. The body problematic is secondary, and dependent on performance. The aim of the voice is the simple correction of Missbefinden, or sensorimotor error. It points the way other voices within the body, but does not address these voices beyond individually perceived stigma. Its voice is the awareness of the stigma itself viewed “outside” the body, as if it were absent.
Drew Leder’s conception of disability is accurate in that one always feels the voice of stigma and dys-appearance. But, so far there is no description of a sense of disability culture beyond a group of people faced with common limits, and no powers are introduced to make disability a positive cultural force. In the words of Nietzsche, quoted by Evans in his book: “Life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.” (Evans 2009 p. 114)
In my view, if disability culture is to overcome the entropic effects of limitation and weakness, it must focus on the strength of disability. I refer to this as the superhuman (übermensch) element in disability, borrowing a term from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”5 (Nietzsche 1885/Kaufmann 1974 p. 124) Overcoming means to me that disability should be a positive force other than the desire to be normalized. Its voice both limits and extends one’s determination and human experience into the superhuman.