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Embodied differences, or the angel that still has no head

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Embodied differences,” writes Stephen Kuusisto, “are the nerve of our nation’s body politic.” And I am tempted by that term, by the feeling that it must have a reach a good deal beyond the topic of disability as he considers it in a recent blog post. The post itself begins with the writer markedly under the weather, taunted by a demon that knows how to stir up self-contempt among the diminished and embattled. Yet there is work to be done back at the university: “We think about this [work] rather often for we are like a marble cutter of human rights: steady, habituated, working on an angel that still has no head.” The university knows enough to invite a diverse group to work and study there, but still finds them to be alien and inconvenient. Offering only a “grudging and minimal inclusion,” the faculty fail to notice “the kinds of questions that disability can productively promote.” When the customary discourse need not be stretched to reach as far as the other person — the history, the specificity of experiences and meanings the other person embodies — then people are barely in each other’s presence, intellectually and spiritually, even if they are gliding along the same campus path or breathing the air of the same seminar room. The risk of encountering another person can be dismissed quite easily from a position of relative ease and power — one need only never quite hear the spark of particularity in the words or read it on the face or in the tone. Never hearing the particularity of another’s speech, we are never influenced, we are untouched. As a result, there are words that might have enriched our deliberations we will never use, anecdotes that might have instructed us that we will never ponder, and questions we will never ask that might have extended the horizon before us.

Curiously, though, universities are very often models of generic speech, and you could drop many of the conversations that take place on one campus down onto another campus hundreds of miles away and not miss a beat, for a good deal of the work we do on campuses has to do with passing on languages rather than learning the local dialect. Very often a sociologist or an English professor spends days or weeks saying little or even nothing that has been shaped around the particulars of region or student body. The “embodied differences” don’t get a chance to impinge upon the rhetorics of our fields, usually. Students come to us to be acculturated, we think, and not the reverse. At our worst, we don’t even learn their names.

But for Kuusisto, as for Gadamer, differences are generative of meaning, or can be. Kuusisto says that “embodied differences are the source of considerable power in language and in self-awareness, the two things university instructors are most often hoping to foster, at least in those courses where reading and writing are paramount.” It is respectful to seek common ground and to appreciate difference, too. We grow smarter when we do.

Schools, however, don’t always manage it. In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin talked about a labyrinth of attitudes that keeps people from mastering or even acknowledging the complexity of their lives. Institutions are at least as good as individuals in this brand of failure. A passage from another Baldwin essay hints at the psychological barriers to understanding that accompany embodied differences, thanks to the workings of culture:

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable. (“Fifth Avenue, Uptown”)

And so the angel has no head because the meanings of our embodied differences, which Kuusisto rightly calls “the nerve of our nation’s body politic,” are obscured and silenced when they challenge us to find their bounty.

PS. In the memoir and in the occasional blog post, there is also the fabulous image of the dog — the creature of optimism and hope that teaches the person rather than merely serving him. That’s why there must be serious training of the person before receiving a guide dog — there is much unlearning to do before the person can be ready to learn with and from another being.

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