Disability as Metaphor
Sufficeth to say that my brain busies itself — pretty regularly — with the research equivalent of Connect the Dots. I mention this to explain why, while completing an assigned reading on Orientalism last week, I was thinking mainly about disability. Specifically about disability as metaphor.
One of the main points the theorist behind Orientalism addresses is the notion that “Western” representation of the “Orient” has a lot less to do with the realities of the Orient than with the authors who create the representation. In other words, we as Westerners put together a myth about non-Westerners to help understand (not them but rather) ourselves.
A similar thing can happen when disability is used metaphorically by nondisabled artists. For example*, earlier this year songwriters Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley paired up to present Evelyn Evelyn, a pair of conjoined twins with mad ukelele skills and a penchant for musicals. The project interested me almost immediately, if only because I’ve enjoyed a lot of Palmer’s past creations. And admittedly the controversy around the release of her EE album had me equally fascinated. (This is not to say that I was standing at the sidelines cheering the various hateful comments that went back and forth or that the controversy made me more likely to buy the album… Just that — from whatever removed position my privilege allows me to have — I did feel like there were some intriguing positions being staked out on various sides, regarding this project.)
For those of you who weren’t following the proverbial Shit as it hit the hypothetical Fan, I’ll simplistically summarize the controversy: Following a post from Annaham over at FWD, in which she called out the ableism (she considers) inherent in the project, the Internet basically went mad. (Granted, that’s rarely a far stretch.) Responses ranged from the civil/interesting discourse previously mentioned, to an arguably ill-advised tweet from Palmer, to outright threats of violence toward Annaham and others who shared her critiques. Palmer eventually addressed the concerns via her blog, while partner Webley urged fans not to condemn the project before its actual release. Full disclosure: When that release date occurred this past March — I bought a copy. A copy which I’ve listened to multiple times since.
Music critiques are not my specialty, so sufficeth to say that I appreciate the Evelyn Evelyn album because it strikes me — quite frankly — as smart. The narrative explores tensions between history and contemporary pop culture, hyperrealism and mundane trivialities, innocence and wisdom, storytelling and music, resentment and love. None of these poles exist, in EE, outside an explicit relationship with the alternative (and everything in between), a relationship often illustrated in the pair of conjoined twins Palmer and Webley embody in performance: the two personalities who share a body. In my reading, at least, the disability in EE is more metaphoric than literal. I doubt Palmer or Webley intended to represent the reality of life as a conjoined twin, when creating an album that includes everything from chicken-men to mermaids. But — as Annaham pointed out from the beginning — the songwriters’ “intentions” were not at issue. The true issue at hand had a lot less to do with whether Palmer and Webley intended to exploit what is — for some — a reality of life, and more to do with the extent to which their project played on stereotypes — on the trope of PODs as pitiable victims, on the history of exhibiting PODs in circuses, and so forth.
For that reason, reading the disability in EE as metaphoric does little to exonerate the artists behind it. But exonerating or condemning Palmer and Webley doesn’t interest me, really. Ethics strike me as one area in which the old adage “to each their own” is particularly applicable. What interests me is that one of the most common suggestion about how to prevent problematic representations is to limit who’s allowed to represent a condition, period. The basic logic? — If you haven’t had an experience, don’t talk about it.
Granted, I really do believe that we should keep in mind who gets to discuss (publically and on a regular basis) any given identity. I think it’s important to remember that any person in an oppressed group is rarely “allowed” to tell their own story (especially in a forum where people might listen), and that this is part of how oppression continues. For these reasons, it’s important to remember that when we have privilege in a specific sense, one of the most helpful things we can do is shut up, at least in terms of discussing an experience we fundamentally do not understand.**
Annaham herself did not actually endorse the “you don’t know, so be quiet” stance. In fact, she explained in her Feb 22nd post that there is “quite a bit of difference between critiquing a portion of someone’s work and wanting to shut them up or silence them” and reiterated that she only wished Palmer and Webley would “engage critically” with the points disability justice activists had made. However, the solution remains common among other responders. Much like the only-we-can-use-that-word-for-us discussion on reclaiming language, the argument about art tends to be that only people who have an experience can make art about that experience. In order to limit shall-we-say shitty representations, the experience is roped off, with the hope that limiting its use will make for better-informed, more nuanced representations.
But to state the ridiculously obvious: metaphor is not about what’s literal. And limiting the images and experiences available to any of us, as artists, places a dangerous restriction on art. It’s the problematic underbelly of the “write what you know philosophy,” in which what we know is limited to what we literally experience, and we are required to describe our knowledge in the most basic of terms. Such a restriction also situates art as an enemy of social justice, despite the fact that artists often do quite a bit to push at the status quo and — for better or worse — to move us into new territory. In short, I believe that restricting the availability of metaphors is a flawed solution to a nevetheless-real problem… although I’ll be the first to admit that my prioritizing the availability of metaphors (over — apparently — the right of PWDs to have non-shitty representation) depends somewhat on the level to which this is not personal for me.*** That said, I don’t think good representation and access to images are actually mutually exclusive. Many metaphors draw on experiences that are not the author’s, but which someone else is actively experiencing. The issue with metaphor — from my perspective — has less to do with the fact that we appropriate an identity/ experience other than our own for the sake of art — and more to do with the fact that we generally appropriate that experience based on its representation in a dominant narrative. When we create a project like Evelyn Evelyn, for instance, we aren’t symbolically employing the real-life experiences of conjoined twins; we’re riffing on a powerful cultural myth of Siamese twins, pitiable victims, and circus freaks.
Activists and advocates generally get irked because myths blur into realities. Myths have power, often more power than facts. And unfortunately, representations are rarely read — by audiences — as representations. They’re read — largely — as realities or (at best) as fictions based on true stories. Thus, our understanding of conjoined twins, for instance, gets colored by works like this one, and we continue to oppress, exploit and oppress real PWDs. But would that still be the case if our metaphors were based on lived realities instead of misleading substitutions?
Recently, John Cadigan — one of the mental health advocates I follow on Twitter — called out Mother Jones’ flippant use of schizophrenia as metaphor. The use of the term “schizophrenic” — as figurative shorthand for describing mixed feelings or multiple personalities — is equal parts common and misguided. The reality of schizophrenia has basically no relationship to these experiences. In actuality, the psychiatric condition most closely related to “multiple personalities” is not schizophrenia but MPD/ DID, and the “schizophrenic” metaphor’s only foundation is in the term’s misleading etymology. (Basically, we misnamed schizophrenia, using Greek terms that translate to “split mind” and now we rely on our misnomer to create a metaphor, which doesn’t represent people’s actual experiences.) As a condition — neither ambivalence nor multiple personalities characterize schizophrenia. Our continued mis-use of the term confirms our cultural misunderstanding of how that condition is experienced, further harming the people for whom schizophrenia is a lived reality. But is the use of metaphor necessarily the problem?
If the use of metaphor is the problem, then activists and advocates who argue that only conjoined twins should speak about being conjoined and only people with schizophrenia should speak on having schizophrenia are probably onto something. But if the basis of our metaphors is the problem, then limiting who can use an experience symbolically is not the sole solution. (Or — I would argue — the best one.) Instead, we might consider challenging authors and artists to use metaphor more responsibly, to embrace one of creativity’s fundamental challenges — the search for the best way to convey an experience — while being accountable for our symbols’ implications, including their ethical implications. In other words, we might consider challenging authors/artists (ourselves included) to ascertain whether the details of a specific identity truly reflect the experience we wish to convey or whether we’ve fallen back on misguided cultural myths. We might consider what the stories in our art imply about an identity and whether we can ethically align ourselves with the representation we’ve created. Rather than limiting what art we can make, we might challenge ourselves to make art we can stand by.
An example: Many artistic representations of disability — particularly in pop media and, still more particularly, in television — fall into the transformation narrative. (You know the one. An actor without a disability portrays a PWD who either becomes or dreams about becoming nondisabled. The popularity of this storyline also helps to explain away the number of characters with disabilities played by nondisabled actors.) When art uses this trope, it generally relies on a character’s performance of disability and non-disability, with the nondisabled state almost always presented as the desirable, superior way of living. But this isn’t a fundamental requirement of a performance that explores a single person as alternately disabled and nondisabled. Consider how different the implications would be if a person were shown as most unhindered in their state of disability and most fettered in their nondisabled state. Our ableist language makes this seem bizarre, but it’s an available metaphor we tend to dismiss. (For me, the original Little Mermaid story comes to mind, as a rare — and certainly not clear-cut — example of this version. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original story, the post-transformation little mermaid experiences her newfound ability to walk as incredibly painful; every step leaves her feeling “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” While chronic pain can itself classify as a disability, (complicating things a bit), Andersen’s metaphor still strikes me as unique. Imagine how different the implications would be if the mermaid’s original condition were portrayed as tragic and painful and her transformation into a human biped was offered as an unequivocal solution to her troubles.)
Looking at how we can use metaphor ethically to challenge (rather than reaffirm problematic representations begins to bring artistic expression back into the realm of social justice. It expands “good” representations beyond the limited space of educational/ awareness media, to include artistic and creative endeavors. Works with purposes other than education/ awareness begin to have a place in those efforts, even when they were created (ostensibly) for other reasons, — like to explore tensions or to offer up some slammin’ beats. It allows — potentially — space for us to make our art and re-make our world.
*But certainly not the only one. Feel free to toss out other examples of how disability (variously defined) is metaphorically used. Are there representations you think work better than others?
**This is not to say we should shut up about oppression… just to suggest that calling out ableism and failing to recognize that we aren’t disabled are two very different things. In fact, putting ourselves firmly in the “oppressed” category when we do have — even some — able privilege is one way that we manage to perpetuate the system.
**Able privilege, like most privilege, exists on a continuum — meaning one does not simply “have it” or “not have it.” Disability is also one of the most fluid privileged statuses. All of which I point out to say that I don’t point to my privilege because I don’t have a disability or because I’m not — in certain ways — screwed over by ableism. Rather, since I don’t have the “type” of disability discussed here, I still think privilege applies. And I think the fact that it’s not a strict dichotomy (some persons privileged, some oppressed) is important to recognize.