Fighting Monsters Without Becoming One Part 2: The Power Within Disability
Previously, I talked about disability culture as a “multi-voiced body”; which means there many ways people's experiences speak to them artistically about life with a disability. I mentioned Friedrich Nietzsche's model of the body as something to be passionately lived with and overcome. (The superhuman element.) Towards this superhuman element, Rod Michalko, blind professor of disability studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, approvingly quotes Nietzsche: “I try to keep in mind Friedrich Nietzsche's observation (1967, 493) that "what does not destroy us makes us stronger." (Michalko 2002 p. 7) He explains that disabilities should be connected with a social identity apart from the traditional notion of suffering. “[...] disabled people, especially those involved in the disability movement, abhor the idea of having suffering attached to them. The attachment, it is argued, is offensive because it diminishes and devalues the life of a disabled person by suggesting that such a life must be suffered because of disability, thus implying that disability is a life not worth living and one that must be suffered.” (Michalko 2002 p. 50) Michalko thus offers an explanation of why a presumptive notion of suffering attached to disability is offensive, but does not give credit to the positive power of the übermensch that transfigures physical obstacles, as well as suffering, into individual superhuman efforts. Instead, he treats disability as a socio-political construction through his concept of homeland. He recalls that as a young boy he was teased and castrated from the realm of the masculine by being called names. Because of his genetic eye condition, his homeland gradually changed and he was regulated to its margins as he went blind. As one can see from his definition of disability, his condition is still viewed as a limiting concept: “[...] the disadvantage of restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activity.” (Michalko 2002 p.50) Perhaps unintentionally, homeland excludes the powers of the disabled individual to overcome obstacles and change “contemporary social organization”. Michalko sees disability as a negative label (not chosen), and one that can change with a movement. He inadvertently excludes models of disability outside the social movement, particularly critiquing the biomedical model of disability: “Medical doctors likewise take over the problem of disability. If they cannot fix it, the disabled person may not be welcome on the streets.” (Michalko 2002 p.13)
One of the first charges issued by Fred Evans in his multivoiced body model is to exclude the excluders. Under this charge, Michalko seems to oscillate between the freedom of subjects, and their imprisonment by a stronger societal language; a byproduct of the Foucaultian philosophy he employs throughout the book. Ironic as it may seem to answer Foucault with Nietzsche, I will assume that a community without agency cannot last: “The wrath of the disappointed creditor, the community, throws him back again into the savage and outlaw state against which he has hitherto been protected: thrusts him away — and now every kind of hostility may be vented upon him.”6 (Nietzsche 1887/1888/Kaufmann and Hollingdale 1989 p. 71)
Evans notes that Foucault’s notion of humanism is the restriction of power. I too, held this view for a long time, though I did not associate it with Foucault. However, Evans’ notion of voice has destroyed this dichotomy for me. For as Evans notes, it denies people the freedoms they seek in traditional human rights, by downplaying humanism as just another tool of domination. I am the son of an anesthesiologist and a former resident nurse, and I have benefited from their knowledge and care. Doctors have many benefits to offer aside from political aims.
I now see that the biomedical model of disability is a different voice in the multivoiced body of disability, but it is by no means opposed to the notion of strong disability culture I am proposing. One can always benefit from the removal of dys-appearance proposed by Leder, which only occurs when mastery of the body is questioned. One can still reap the benefits the biomedical conception of the body while remaining master of one’s body. To quote Nietzsche, whose übermensch model I am purposing to add to this multivoiced body: “You should achieve power over your pros and cons and learn how to put them forth and hang them back in accordance with your higher aim. You should learn to recognize the perspectivism inherent in every appraisal.”7 (Nietzsche 1878/Safranski 2000/Frisch 2002 p.185) Put simply: know what you want and need from the biomedical model, but do not let it exclude important voices.
But, Michalko has highlighted a positive “higher aim” of disability: as a social power, even if he inadvertently dodges the agency of the individual; Leder did not expressedly give such transformative power to disability, only an individual phenomenological model of disability itself. It is Robert F. Murphy who vividly describes this superhuman transformation of meaning in The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled (1987) - all its tragedy and ecstasy. Robert F. Murphy describes not only the world of disability in rich detail, but also his journey into becoming a person with a disability and how it changed his interactions with others, both able-bodied and with disabilities. He notes the changing of signs not only in his own life as a person with a disability, but also as he interacts with those who are able-bodied.
Murphy’s account of his own symbolic world while living with a disability highlights the feeling of two-ness described by Evans in the words of W.E.B DuBois: “One ever feels his two-ness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”(Evans 2009 p. 64) It is common that a person feels such dualities.