Saturday, February 25, 2012

Remembering the Possibilities

In his essay on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that "Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was.  Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again" (Potentialities, Stanford UP, 2000, 267).

Remembering is thus both a return to and a psychological re-tooling of the past.    It infuses possibility into already-completed events in a way that reopens the question of the permeable relationship between what was and what is.

Although the events may be over, as anyone who is troubled by memories of the past can tell you, things aren't ever really "over."  They are re-lived in a way that is distinctly different from their first incarnation, but they are re-lived nevertheless.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as he comes to terms with the fact of his complete paralysis, Jean-Dominique Bauby acknowledges, "I am fading away.  Slowly but surely.  Like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede.  My old life still burns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory" (77).

Bauby compensates by cultivating imaginative propensities designed to transcend his bodily imprisonment: this is the counterpoint between the "diving bell" of his body and the "butterfly" of his mind, testified to in the title of his memoir.

Previously a "master at recycling leftovers," Bauby "cultivate[s] the art of simmering memories" to compensate for the fact that his meals are now delivered via a feeding tube inserted into his stomach (36).

If, as Kwame Appiah has argued in The Ethics of Identity (Princeton UP, 2005), "[t]o create a life is to create a life out of the materials that history has given you" (19), what role does memory play in narratives of physical disability?

Appiah argues that "the measure of my life, the standard by which it is to be assessed as more or less successful, depends, if only in part, on my life's aims as specified by me ... my life's shape is up to me (provided that I have done my duty toward others), even if I make a life that is less good than a life I could have made" (xii).

Appiah's assertion of a life's goodness--both its creation and its assessment--overlooks the notion of bodily impairment, difference or degeneration.  In such cases, what is one's "duty" to others?  Has it changed, and if so, how? 

Although Appiah notes that "a plan of life is not like an engineer's plan," but is instead comprised of "mutable sets of organizing aims" (16), it is nevertheless premised upon merging conceptions of possibility with facts of material existence. 

And in that conception, disability (whether through age or injury) is never addressed as a relevant factor.  The questions of ethics and the phenomena of disability is ever-present in our culture, I think, but nearly always goes unasked.

We'd rather not think about ourselves as anything other than able-bodied.  And yet, as Rene Leriche has noted, "[a]t every moment there lie within us many more physiological possibilities than physiology would tell us about.  But it takes disease to reveal them to us" (qtd. in Georges Canguilhelm, The Normal and the Pathological, [New York: Zone Books], 100).

Able-bodiedness is the "norm" of physiological (self-) assessment, and yet it is also an ideological vanishing point: it never actually or absolutely exists.  Our bodies are always functioning otherwise, but we only notice the alternatives to able-bodiedness when illness makes us aware of them.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that it is not simply the case that disability can interrupt an individual's life-script and radically alter the organizing aims of a formerly able-bodied individual: at the same time, the remembrance of former able-bodiedness typically "interrupts" narratives of disability.

We re-live the life we no longer have.  We re-live the life we thought we were supposed to have, but didn't.

We understand who we are by thinking about who we were and who we have always wanted to be.  Disability and injury radically alter the stakes of this self-assessment.  The notion of a "good life" changes and--perhaps most disturbing for those who are still able-bodied--this change forces all of us to recognize that this definition of life's "goodness" is relative, and by no means absolute.

Agamben addresses the (potential) moral implications of this realization when he notes that "[t]o believe that will has power over potentiality ... is the perpetual illusion of morality" (254).  This never-ending illusion of inherent human control over contingency and materiality is at the heart of Western ethics.

As Georges Canguilhelm has noted, "[f]or a man whose future is almost always imagined starting from past experience, becoming normal again means taking up an interrupted activity or at least an activity deemed equivalent by individual tastes or the social values of the milieu" (119).

In essence, physiological "normalcy" is determined by our sense of our past and our understanding of our future.  We seek to overcome the "interruption" that has occurred, as if it were merely a question of will-power.

As Agamben argues, "Our ethical tradition has often sought to avoid the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity.  Not what you can do, but what you want to do or must do is its dominant theme" (254).

I would like to think about the multiple and manifold variations on the theme of will-power that can be witnessed through the lens of disability.  Not what is to be done, but what can be done, and how the concepts of will, contingency, necessity, and disability interrelate in discussions of Western ethics and identity.

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