The Specter of Disability

A horror movie is on in the other room. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but from the audio, I think it has something to do with infanticide and the remorse the parents in that horror-movie like way  of audio-induced jump scares and eerie figures at the periphery of slowly panning cameras.

In some ways, I’ve encountered eugenics in a similar way: as the ghostly hauntings of a “never again, but let’s not talk about it.” Likewise for the lobotomy craze of Walter Freeman. Or Rivera’s exposé of Willowbrook. Or the other patchy histories that lurk in the haunted confines of our American psyche.

Talking to my dad, a psychologist, about this haunting memory, he too related some difficult stories of when he was a student. Like the time when he fainted after holding down a patient for electroshock therapy, or the time when a particularly difficult patient received a lobotomy, or when a deaf patient, failing IQ evaluations, got wrongfully shuffled off to Willowbrook. Or, most hauntingly, when he recalled how one of his friends went to Germany to study psychiatric disabilities, only to realize that generations had been wiped out by Nazi genocides.

Buildings, too, evoke a similarly haunting presence. In parts of New Jersey and Long Island, the urban myth of “Cropsy” arose around the ruins of abandoned asylums. Like a Boogie Man used to scare kids into good behavior, Cropsy represented the former patients who huddle back around the desolate ruins. “Stay away from those ruins,” warned some parents, “or Cropsy might get you.”

While not necessarily remaining loyal to Derrida’s original meaning of “hauntology,” I think that that disability, for some time, and even today, retains a certain ambiguity of being. A certain haunting presence that lurks in the periphery in the ableist normality of many of our discourses, something ugly that the normative does not want to discuss or address openly.

Most strikingly, Douglas Bayton’s “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” critiques historians’ and history’s own ableist rhetoric, pointing to a common pattern of justification. Many racist, sexist practices gained strength by arguing (1) the “other” (non-white or woman) was inherently inferior to the norm (the white male) and (2) that too much involvement in the realm of the norm, like education or civics, would result in further disability.

Instead of critiquing the claim that disability should disqualify one’s claim to education or civic duty, many of these marginalize groups generally tried to distance themselves from the labels of disabilities. Even historians often make the same mistake. As Bayton writes, “just as it was left unchallenged at the time, historians today leave unchallenged the notion that weakness, nervousness, or proneness to fainting might legitimately disqualify one for suffrage” (43). Indeed, Bayton also notes the strategy of some in the deaf community to distance themselves from disability.

As some argue, and as intuition points to, such labels and the architecture of control they help orchestrate points to the regulation of the body–and the body politic.

In a somewhat distinct but illuminating case, Phillipa M. Spoel points to Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia, an exhaustive–and neurotically detailed–instruction manual for gesture. As a member of the elocutionary movement, Austin valued delivery, the positioning and condition of the body and voice in oral rhetoric.

As Spoel argues, the document connects to Foucault’s “science of order,” and “outlines a normalizing discipline of the body” and “makes the speaker’s body ‘intelligible’ to a critical, scholarly community” (8). And while this allows a certain level of control over the speakers body, and bodies more generally, Spoel argues that certain elements of the text, like its often more naturalized (instead of abstract) representations, allow gaps for alternatives. Sidestepping the potential gaps, Ben McCorkle, in a more general treatment of rhetoric from the period, also connects the mechanistic model of this rhetorical approach to the more mechanistic, industrial technology of printing, evoking a similar stance of control and organization

Regardless of gaps or the link to technology, however, the reality shows the control such rhetoric can create. For example, Bayton’s account on history recalls the labels of disability used to exclude countless people from entering America. And Martin S. Pernick’s “Defining the Defective” also points to fate-creating power (even over life and death) that such labeling had, despite being based on  often subjective and culturally and historically based aesthetics.

The effect of this on mass culture gets interesting.

As Pernick argued, many people rejected the ugly films produced by eugenic arguments and situations–even those against eugenics–like a film about Harry Haiselden’s refusal to save a disabled infant. As Pernick writes, “The attempts to make the disabled look ugly made eugenics seem repulsive as well” (97).

This “ugly” quality of the topic connects to my opening consideration: that of the hautology of disability. I often see disability as the haunting byproduct of control. As Spoel points out, Austin could not fully mechanize and normalize the body’s capacity to gesture. Indeed, no system or terminology can completely normalize the body or mind’s capacity to be. And those that don’t fit the categories, receive “special” categories or “pathologies” or possibly worse, get shuffled off of the margins entirely, hidden away in institutions.

And here I end on a final story. I once met a man growing up as a kid at a group home. He seemed nice enough, yet even among the others, one could tell he likely struggled the most to “function” according to the norms of the group home

I asked about him, and the attending nurse said that his parents had hid him in a closet his whole life when they discovered his disabilities, so he never learned the basics of survival. They just gave him bare subsistence, changed him, and forgot he existed to the outside world.

In a sense, then, I see these problem both abstractly and deeply grounded in flesh, blood, and psyche: until we recognize the marginalizing prospect of control and normality, we will always have people figuratively and literally hidden from view.

[Image: Ghost Station by Matthias Romberg]

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