Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Universal Mixing, Love and Chance"

I've been reading two good books this week, Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992) and John Hockenberry's autobiography, Moving Violations (1996).

Alvarez's novel is extremely funny--and extremely moving--at times, particularly when she describes the  emotional and linguistic (mis)communication that occurs between the different generations of the Garcia family, as they accept and adjust to their lives in the United States.

In particular, the chapter dealing with Yolanda's college experiences as an English major (and a virgin) in 1969 is priceless.

I think we all had a class with "that guy"--"Rudolf Brodermann Elmenhurst, the third"--his descendants were definitely still on the prowl on the 1980s college scene...

Hockenberry's memoir is incredibly powerful, but difficult to absorb in long stretches (for me at least).  His description of the car accident that left him a paraplegic at age 19 and his reactions to that event and its aftermath are understandably difficult to read about, let alone process and write about.

I think Hockenberry's point--that the (temporarily) able-bodied among us need to learn to listen to the stories of disability and resist the temptation to reduce them to the kind of overly reductive, overarching narratives that flood American culture--is worth taking the time to digest.

As I read his story, I constantly feel like I need more time to take it all in, that I have to read slowly in order to do it justice and make sure that it is all, in fact, sinking in.

I constantly weigh this against the fact that, as someone whose life was changed in an instant, Hockenberry didn't, in a very fundamental way, have "time" to take this all in--he had to get busy and live, never knowing, obviously, how it would all turn out.

At times, I feel like Hockenberry's story is one that the human psyche automatically resists, on some level.  We don't want to think of ourselves as potentially disabled, in any way, and this story reminds us that it is an ever-present possibility that always looms large in any given moment.

We simply refuse to see it, perhaps because to do so would render us emotionally or mentally "paralyzed," unable to put one psychological "foot" in front of the other.

If you knew right now that, when you get up from that chair, you will collapse and never walk again, what would you do?  What would you think?  What would you experience?  As I mentioned in a previous post ("Life's Fragility"), this is the narrative essence of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

The way that Hockenberry situates his experience on that February afternoon in 1976 in terms of quantum physics is particularly interesting and resonant:
In a quantum era we creep along a crumbling ledge made by Descartes, a ledge where the unknown is just the writing on the pages we haven't turned.  All knowledge and experience are bound together in a handsome volume.  Humans still need to believe that there is a sea of stuff out there in which everything bobs.  We are just beginning to confront the lack of order in the world. (25)
Hockenberry goes on to argue for what he identifies as a "quantum view of disability," which
allows you to dare to think that you can have lived two lives, two bodies occupying two places at once.  Suddenly, in an instant, radical change: I was different, yet I was still the same person.  I knew that was possible then.  It would take a lifetime to be sure. (25)
One of the aspects of disability theory that is emphasized is the way in which impairment--whether physical, mental or emotional--alters the possibilities and prerogatives of narrative.

In The Ethics of Identity, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that
a picture that comes from romanticism, is the idea of finding one's self--of discovering, by means of reflection or a careful attention to the world, a meaning for one's life that is already there, waiting to be found. (17)
In contrast to this notion of "authenticity" is what Appiah identifies as "the existentialist picture" in which "existence precedes essence: that is, you exist first and then you have to decide what to exist as, afterward" (17).

Both pictures (authenticity and existentialist) are inaccurate, Appiah argues, because neither fully grapples with the problem of creativity: in the "authenticity" framework, identity is predetermined and fixed, ready to be "found."

In the "existentialist" conception, however, "there is only creativity" (17)--an approach which overlooks the fact that we identify ourselves in response to a history and a culture that exists outside of ourselves.

We are who we are because of both what we are and where we are, and all of these processes are constantly in flux.

I find Hockenberry's quantum theory of disability fascinating because I think it complicates what seems to me to be Appiah's overly seamless discussion of identity and potentiality.

Disability isn't just something "out there" that happens to an individual, and likewise, disability isn't simply something individual.  Neither authenticity nor existentialism fully accommodate disability's chaotic processes of intrusion and inclusion.

Disability marks an aporia that is essential to our understanding of not only "the good life," but also of what it means to be "alive."  Although it marks an essential doubt that we have relegated to a group identified as "the disabled," in fact, it shapes all of us.  As Tobin Siebers has argued, the able-bodied might be better identified by the acronym TAP: "temporarily able-bodied."

Disability awaits us all, whether in the form of age, accident or illness.  It shaped the opening chapters of our lives, when our extreme vulnerability rendered us dependent upon others for our every need.

As the French physician and philosopher Geroges Canguilhem once wrote, "as sick men, we are the effect of universal mixing, love and chance."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."