CCR 711: Hauntology/Ontology and the Structures of Exclusion

“Haunting these [education] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant”

–Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts

“124 was spiteful.”
Tony Morrison, Beloved

The notion that Erevelles draws from Patricia Williams of an “absent presence” that “haunts” these systems of bureaucratic procedure struck me in particular, connecting to some previous thinking on “The Specter of Disability” and the exclusionary practices that the withdrawing nature of “normal” bodies can create.

As she notes, these systems can create imperializing ghettos that create outcasts in a given system, like an internal colony. Those excluded from the norm get walled away, often literally, in a material segregation that exists, despite the legal restrictions against segregation.  In the case of disability, this can often have more paternal forms, like “special education.” But as Erevelles points out, the paternalistic framing and “good” intentions cannot suppress the sense of punishment that such interventions have.

Reflecting this, Erevelles writes, “Educational institutions  present themselves as agents of benevolence for the billions of students it purports to serve on a daily basis. However, these institutions. . . fail to educate ‘different’ students . . . because they have transformed themselves into institutions of social control  intent on following bureaucratic procedures” (118). Far from neutral, these procedures perpetuate the normal and exclude the ‘different’ through various logics. For example, as Erevelles notes in her later chapters, the logic of humanistic citizenship implicitly excludes those with severe disability, even in its more liberal, inclusive variants. Locked into these logics, educational policy becomes colonial and ableist.

I think Erevelles’ grounded historical-materialist approach to these issues presents a powerful bedrock. But reading, I also was considering the way these “hauntings” might fit into a more ontological outlook on world.

As explained in a past post, Heidegger’s notion of “world” [Welt], as he articulates in Being in Time, is one of contextualized and contextualizing being. Objects gain their significance by what they do, encountered in a “ready-for-hand” manner like a “hammer” that “hammers.” Connected with this, Heidegger also has the notion of “fore-sight” and “fore-conception.” Roughly put, these refer to the way we “see” objects and “conceive” of how to use them, respectively. For example, Duchamp’s Fountain messes with our initial view of what a urinal does or can do, essentially what it “is,” by placing it in a world of art-based relations, outside of its usual world.

Also, as Heidegger argues, we are always “thrown” [geworfen] in the world, finding ourselves with many of these relations prescribed around and within us, defining our interactions and conceptualizations. In Heidegger’s terminology “Das Mann” does this, often translated as “the They,” as in “they say we ought to do this or that.”

I see the sort of procedures that Erevelles points out as the concrete codification and institutionalization of these fore-sights and fore-conceptions, these prescribed ways of being in and knowing the world. As she points out–and as I agree with–these are historically based. The writings of many early American framers of psychiatry and medicine, like Benjamine Rush, certainly justify institutional normalizing, do the logics of neoliberal economics, humanistic citizenship, and the medical model of disability.

These ontologies inevitably have a hauntology, as haunting absence of the potential being that they exclude, but that is or can be. Once more drawing from Heidegger, the “essence of technology,” from his later work, proscribes Being (and beings) into an industrialized form of Berstandt, “stock” or “standing reserve.” So a forest becomes lumber, and people become workers and “human resources.” In a similar mode, the being of bodies is objectified and prescribed into statistical norms. The more normal the body, the less it resists this objectification and prescription and the more it withdraws into the system of being ready-for-hand for education, citizenship, economics, etc.

This violent imposition of ontology and definition creates–and often hides and smothers–the ghosts in the machine. Here I think Avery Gordon’s distinction of haunting and ghost is helpful, as Erevelles quotes: “If haunting describes how that which is appears to not be there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities ,the ghost is just a sign. . . that tells you a haunting is taking place” (qtd in 71). Thus, an underlying condition of ontological exclusion–a “haunting”–creates the “ghosts” of deviant bodies and Being.

In a similar haunting, Toni Morrison’s Beloved evokes the violence of slavery that precipitated Sethe’s murder of her third child. Symbolized by the absence of 3 in the house number 124, Beloved nevertheless makes herself known. But often, the procedures and logics that exclude people with disability try to impede this knowledge from taking place, concealing the present, burying the past, and structuring the future.

Grappling with the imposed ontology of these procedures, one must find the open space and the malleable pieces for a more equitable future. As Ervelles notes, this can’t simply be a legal shift. It must also be material. And ontological, I would add.

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