CCR 711: Bodies, Subjectivities, and Being

As Nirmala Erevelles writes in her article, “it is the ‘ideology of disability’ which has been used to justify the sexual division of labor that constructed gender as a political and economic concept, the production of class/caste differences. . . the production of racial categories. . . and the upholding of compulsory heterosexuality” (104).

In other words, at different historical times and spaces, different bodies have been disabled. During colonialism, slavery disabled African bodies, for example And more broadly, disability connects to the surplus of labor inherent to the system, as such subjects lack the ability to “produce” or labor in the capitalist economy. This excludes them from the role of producer and consumer, erased into surplus and further marked as disabled.

This sort of historical materialist grounding helped guide more post-structuralist and post-human theories in Erevelles’ account, I thought, the section on cyborgs being particularly clear. Initially, the promises of hybrid and human, technological and flesh, and the different assemblage-based bodies afforded in this paradigm seems ideal for people with disability. But such a paradigm still has divisions among social classes, with many of these bodies out of reach for most. Moreover, the production and technology needed for these cyborg bodies often arises from capitalist labor and the hierarchies that follow with that, a material reality often missed by theorists.

Thus. as Erevelles writes, “By locating their emancipatory practices within the space of the social imaginary, as opposed to the actual materiality of of economic conditions, poststructuralists continue to uphold a utopic vision of emancipation” (98-99).

In itself, this historical material grounding coupled with the possibility and imagination offered by theory provides a helpful framework to move forward with. However, I also think it worth coupling with the embodied rhetoric and standpoint theory of Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson. Quoting Sandra Harding, they describe that standpoint theory “acknowledges that ‘one must be engaged in historical struggles–not just a disembodied observer of them’ and that ‘[t]hose historical struggles make one’s argument ’embodied,’ not transcendental'” (7). Phrased more rhetorically, the body is always “mediating” discourse and rhetoric, an outlook that stretches back to Quintilian and Cicero.

Further in this context, I think it worth bringing up Bruggerman’s “Strong Defence” (also called social constructionism). As she quotes Lanham: this position “assumes that truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others, but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but terminative, essentially creative. Truth once created in this way becomes referential.” (qt. in 118).

In other words, with social constructionism, no Platonic Truth exists. In Niezsche’s words, “God is dead”: objectivity, transcendentalism, absolute Truth, etc. is out of our reach. Who and what gets valued are transient and composed of human signs and contexts. Rhetoric, not Truth or dialectic, informs reality.

Thus, with this postmodern, socially constructed context, those who lack “rhetoricability” become silenced, which Prendergast. As she observes, drawing from her friend Barbara, “To be disabled mentally is to be disabled rhetorically, a truth Barbara knows well. Her definition of disability she has phrased at times as ‘a life denied significance.’ In the field of rhetoric her statement might be translated into ‘a life denied signification'” (57).

These concepts and conversations have a lot of richness, and as a teacher and thinking in training, I feel compelled to think through some of it. Post-humanism. Postmodernism. Historical materialism. Embodiment. Standpoint theory. Transcendental truth. Social constructionism. Rhetoricability. Signification.

Taking a step back, I notice a few connections. I see an important unity between the possibility of more postmodern and post-human approaches with the more grounded situating of historical materialism. In other words, I am reluctant to grant “transcendent truth.” I am willing to grant that some truths are more tested, enduring, and applicable to different contexts, but something arhetorical and abstracted–transcendent in the Platonic sense–seems too distant. Even Hegel, as abstract as he was, largely held in his Encyclopedias that thought is in the world.

And as an extension of that, our subjectivity, much as Kant argued, prevent us from seeing the “thing-in-itself,” reality in its pure, objective form. We all have our subject positions, and here, once again, I am more on the postmodern side. But I also think it worth noting that that position is historically and materially situated, and as different as our own backgrounds are, we are also rhetorically connected.

And it is through this connection that I think I diverge from the readings somewhat. Our understanding of rhetoric–what it is, how it operates, etc.–structures what or who has rhetoricability, what is “significant” (in both the semiotic and the general sense of the word). And in our rhetorically constituted world, this is everything.

One could get quite abstract with this, but quite basically, by denying the rhetoric of a being, one denies their Being. It denies their reality. Perhaps in more human terms, it means denying who they are, where they are coming from, what they need, what connections we may have with them, how they affect or are affected by us.

And I think this is what is so hard about this whole thing: We’re all in this together, but by ourselves. The gulf of subjectivity is as divisive. We can never bridge our lifeworlds and headspaces–at least not in any foreseable way. But our ontology demands that we recognize our mutual being-with-others. This “mit-Sein” becomes particularly hard with (dis)ability, as their rhetoricability and signification can appear blurry, fuzzy, or absent through the terministic screen of many dominant systems. Thus, I think the first step of an embodied rhetoric is one of orientation: learning to see the plurality of rhetoric in which we are constantly embedded.


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