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Disability Studies: The Social Model v. Ubiquitous Impairment

Having spent a considerable amount of time presenting the immanent philosophy of Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari our attention will now focus on a particular “connection” that I believe will aid the knife-wielding machines of humanity in their pursuit for socio-political change. Identity politics assumes as its task the liberation of particular social minorities. It seeks to empower such people-groups to bring change to the socio-political arena. Perhaps it wouldn’t be unfair to state that Hallward’s desire to empower the inhabitants of the world would fit quite well into the milieu of identity politics. However, for Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari, the idea of identity itself is something to challenge. Therefore, in what follows we will look at one specific example of how a social minority can discard an approach of identity politics in favor of a schizophrenic approach and then suggest that the latter is actually a more effective alternative.

In Great Britain, the dominant ideology of Disability Studies since the 1970s has been the “Social Model of Disability.” It was developed by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) and has subsequently been the barometer for disability politics. The central document of the UPIAS, Fundamental Principles of Disability, describes the social model thusly:

In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. To understand this it is necessary to grasp the distinction between the physical impairment and the social situation, called ‘disability’, of people with such impairment. Thus we define impairment as lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities (Shakespeare and Watson, “The Social Model of Disability: An Outdated Ideology?).”

The key element of this doctrine is the distinction drawn between “impairment” and “disability.” The former is a physical, psychological, emotional, functional, organic, or (any otherwise) mechanistic limitation that inheres within a given person. Disability is the social restriction that limits the impaired individual from experiencing a place of normalcy within a social field. An example of an impairment for someone with Arthrogryposis, which causes contracturing of the joints, severe muscle atrophy, and often results in confinement to a wheelchair, would be that such a person might have difficulty fetching plums from the branches of a plum tree. Likely, this person would have to rely on a protracting device to reach the ripened fruit, or simply wait until it fell to the ground. Conversely, disability would be the effect of the local “Garden Centre” refusing to carry a protracting device to aid such a person.

This distinction has politically empowered those within the disabled community by identifying them as a socially oppressed minority. By declaring that the primary difference between the “dis-abled” and the “able-bodied” is a social construct, a clear resolution arises: namely, create a more inclusive social milieu. The society that refuses to install wheelchair ramps, or easy-access doorways on its buildings, or audible crosswalk signals is a society that is creating dis-abilities for particular individuals with particular impairments. Therefore, those who are categorized as disabled are then empowered to challenge the civil authorities and demand that such barriers be removed.

While the social model has yielded moderate results in civil affairs, there is a burgeoning sense within disability studies that the social model is outdated. In 2002, Medical Sociologists Tom Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson hurled a stinging critique at the social model in their article entitled, “The Social Model of Disability: An Outdated Ideology?” In the article, Shakespeare and Watson argue that the social model was incredibly useful for creating a new dynamic and a new body-politic among the disabled community. However, they believe that the social model has run its course. By drawing a distinction between impairment and disability, Shakespeare and Watson claim that an unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful bifurcation has been established. In their minds, the disabled community does not gain enough by retaining the signification “impairment”; for the latter is itself a social construct. They argue that, “Impairment is not a pre-social or pre-cultural biological substrate,” and that any ontology that upholds a division between a “normal functioning body” and an “impaired body” is one that presupposes an a priori ontological difference between the impaired and the unimpaired.

Against this division, Shakespeare and Watson support “an alternative ontology of disability which has implications not just for disability studies, but for the broader ways in which [sociologists] and philosophers conceive of the body.” Quoting Allan Sutherland, they write,

[We] must demolish the false dividing line between ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ [meaning impaired] and attack the whole concept of physical normality. We have to recognise that disablement [impairment] is not merely the physical state of a small minority of people. It is the normal condition of humanity.

The idea of the ubiquity of impairment, they claim, not only has practical significance but also empirical validity — it is a fact. For instance, the human being is not capable of flying — I think this is indisputable. Therefore, through capacities that the human does have (i.e. sapience), human society has constructed itself in a way that allows it to overcome this inability (for instance, through technological innovation). The primary difference between the “inability” just mentioned and those inabilities that define and seclude those in the disabled community is that society considers the former acceptable, but not the latter. However, by re-imagining the dyadic normal/abnormal ontology of traditional thought, Shakespeare and Watson believe that a leveling of sorts can be effected, through univocalization, between those whom are currently oppressed in the disabled community and those whom experience the full pleasure of social inclusion.

The idea that all humanity is essentially impaired, or even broader, the idea that all singularities are essentially impaired, is an idea that resonates quite well with the work of Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari. As pre-individual assemblages, the Deleuzian-Guattarian machines are not individuals but are rather multiplicities. And these multiplicities, while not deemed “impaired” (for that would presuppose a transcendent judgement), all exist within a univocal plane of immanence. This univocalization is the precise goal of Shakespeare and Watson mentioned above. They are not concerned with retaining “impairment” as the ontological designation for human beings. Their emphasis on the ubiquity of impairment is a political move. It is a performative signification that does not take itself “seriously,” but that acts as a tendential joke, drawing on the humorous absurdity of the normal/abnormal dyad by subverting the latter through radical fabulation (“One cannot help but laugh when the codes are confounded” [Deleuze, Nomad Thought]). Thus, in a sense, the doctrine of the ubiquity of impairment is a result of a schizo-analysis. In other words, the proponents of an ontology of impairment in Disability Studies are using conceptual creation as a tool for disrupting large-scale molar aggregates that compress the flows of desire in order to release desiring-production and overcome identity politics.

The goal of the latter is consonant with Spinoza’s dictum, “We are unaware of what the body can do.” Deleuze takes this Spinozist maxim to indicate that there is an unknown of the body much in the same way that there is an unconscious of thought. This unknown is not some hidden capacity that is yet to be tapped. Rather, the unknown is the very virtuality that surrounds and inheres the body-machine and all its constituent organ-machines. These intensive flows of desire are by no means dormant, waiting for a kiss of life. They are Life. As such, they are ever-flowing, only being compressed through the power of social-machines.

Sociologist and Deleuze Scholar, James Overboe sees in this “unknown of the body” a way to re-imagine embodied Life. Living with cerebral palsy, Overboe finds in the work of Deleuze and Deleuze-Guattari instruments to create new expressions of “impersonal existence” that skirt the “brass ring of normality” and map an alternative to identity politics. Addressing the comatose, non-cognitive, and non-communicative, persons who are generally considered incapable of engaging in socio-political discussions, Overboe argues that the philosophy of Deleuze gives them a voice. Like the impersonal spark of life that animates the interconnectivity between the “good-for-nothing, universally scorned rogue” and his “carers” in Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend, the impersonal flows of life that connect all molecular-machines establish a mutual communicative network of affection. Affectivity then, understood as impersonal communication between desiring-machines, provides a novel concept for rethinking the socio-political within a post-human matrix. “Post-human” because the very concept of personality is itself too specific; it is too dependent on the “dogmatic image of thought” of representation. However, pre-individual singularities refuse the dogmatic image of thought and maintain their status as free-flowing intensities. Therefore, the way beyond molar identities and identity politics is through the becoming of super-molecularity.