CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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CCR 711: Narrative and Rhetoricity

What struck me most from the readings in Disability and the Teaching of Writing by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the role of narrative.

For some, like Mark Mossman and John Hockenberry, stories are sites of vocalization. Indeed, Mossman stresses the political impact of stories, arguing, “telling stories. . . is doing something, making something happen, for telling stories, in the social context of disability, articulates the rhetoric of social change” (165). The “rhetoric of social change” arises from vocalizing a subjective experience that  normally lies hidden or marginalized.

And while Hockenberry evokes a less deliberate position, the power of his narrative traversing the subway, especially the way the white passengers consistently ignore him, in itself is a rhetorical assertion of being. Coming back to past readings, like Pendergast or Yergeau, this rhetoricity allows an existence of sorts that may otherwise get unacknowledged or ignored by those in power, much like Hockenberry himself.

Michael Berubé points out a similar need for recognition in the context of the possibility afforded by disability legislation for his son Jamie with Down Syndrome. He critiques the idea of “intrinsic human rights and human dignity” by pointing to a blunt reality: “what would it mean for Jamie to ‘possess’ rights that no one on earth recognized” (241)? Framed more in the context of narrative, what would one do if no one listened to the stories of Hockenberry, Yergeau, or Mossmann?

A similar silencing takes place in Audre Lorde’s reflections on prosthetic breasts. Rather than reflect on (and help make sense of) “the feeling and fact” (254) of her lost breast, Lorde gets encouraged to simply get a prosthetic one. In this case, Lorde’s attempt is not only ignored but encouraged into silence,  “glossed over” as “not looking on ‘the bright side of things'” (252). Instead, other narratives of womanhood, focused on outward normality, get reinforced. As a woman, one should look good (and normal) regardless of inward understanding.

Dominant narratives also get examined by David Mitchell, who describes how many texts use “narrative prosthesis,” grounding narrative in “a desire to compensate for a limitation or to reign in excessiveness” (187). In this way, disability has a ubiquitous presence, yet remains invisible and filtered out, explained away or dealt with in the story.

Tobin Siebers futher highlights the political importance of these aesthetic dimensions. Though less grounded on narrative, Siebers focuses on the larger symbolic web that informs attitudes toward bodies. Here, description is central: “Human communities come into being and maintain their coherence by imagining their ideal forms on the basis of other bodies. It is no accident, then, that descriptions in disarray summon images of the disabled body” (264). Bodily associations and significations  infuse practices and spaces, like architecture, excluding abnormal or undesirable bodies in aesthetic–we don’t wanna see it–and pragmatic–we don’t serve it–ways.

Thus, as Ben Okri writes, “It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of your mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. . . . subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” Evoking change or promoting silence, stories, especially in a disability context, have power. Often, just being heard–or being heard in discord to demeaning ideologies–does feel like an important step. A method and methodology for change.

But at the same time, I’m curious about the broader politics of listening. Like Bakhtin–and many others–have pointed out, the listener is also part of the communicative act. They are also part of rhetoric and sense-making. So is the broader ambience, to use Rickert’s approach, of “matter and meaning” that inform a latent affectability in the rhetorical ecology.

I think my guiding question this semester has been: what if that “listener” or the ambience of a situation is not open to the voice of people with disabilities. Silence occurs, subjectivities erased behind a static of terministic screens and world-weaving narratives, but this is not simply vocal silence. It is ontological. It’s the erasure from public life, politics, educational paradigms, paradigms of mind, rhetoricity. But at the same time, embodied subjectivity–bodies in and for themselves–“are,” like a palimpsest trying to get read.  But the etchings and rubrics of another are already trying to speak for them, be they laws, procedure, or ideologies, burying the deeper rhetoric that is already there.

Thus, the question is not simply speaking or listening, but getting others to listen, and getting those who need to be heard into positions above the “chatter,” to use Heidegger’s term, where their own rhetoricity resonates. It’s about creating a system where kairos takes place and things change.

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.

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CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds

Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.

Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.

But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.

This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.

But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.

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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.

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Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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