Examined Life with Judith Butler

I found this short extract from the film Examined Life, where Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler ‘take a walk’ and discuss a number of issues (one of the points made right at the beginning is that taking a walk is not an activity contingent on having legs, it can be done by engaging the body in other ways). The film’s director is Astra Taylor, Sunaura’s sister, (of Zizek! fame) and the transcripts of the interviews were also published in book form.

Sunny Taylor makes the observation that physical access leads to social access and acceptance. She is referring to the fact that in San Francisco many sidewalks are specially lowered, and that many buildings have ramps for wheelchair access (she says that she moved to the Bay area for this precise reason):

“because there’s physical access, there are simply more disabled people out and about in the world, and so people have learned how to interact with them and are used to them in a certain way. And so the physical access leads to a social access and acceptance.” (Taylor 2010, p 189)

This is very important for people with impairments to feel that they can gain access to places in the same way as able bodied persons, unfortunately it is something lacking here in Kazakhstan. Taylor asks a pertinent question – how to make demands for physical access if you cannot get out into society to demand it? The pair also makes the observation that all of us rely on certain conditions being met for us to be able to take a walk – the existence of spaces and surfaces to support our mobility and make it possible and hazard-free to take a walk (ibid, p 188).

They discuss socially accepted notions of the body, and what it is permitted to do – what we assume certain body parts are to be used for, which is a socially constructed concept of how the body should be used. When Sunaura uses her mouth for unorthodox actions – to pick up a coffee cup or open a door – it is somehow challenging societal norms, and people are freaked out or disgusted by it (ibid, pp 190-191), but in doing so, Taylor is making people aware of the extent to which they are “entangled in this web of
normalcy” (ibid, p 197). At this point, Taylor makes an interesting observation – that as liberating as her wheelchair is, as a mobility tool, it is also limiting in the sense that it controls her ability to move in other ways. The idea is that the kind of movements that she’d make without the wheelchair would be more natural but less socially acceptable, “trangressive” in nature (ibid, p 198). Taylor then muses on the significance of the wheelchair:

“wheelchairs… are a signifier of what disabled people are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be helpless. And we’re not supposed to be able to do things. Because if we get out in the world, then the world will have to change to some extent. So I think it’s easier for society to have us be helpless, to, you know, stick us in nursing homes.” (ibid, p 199)

The wheelchair is thus a symbol of oppression to the disabled person – a need to conform, as well as a threat to society at large. This is an interesting thought, and one that I feel needs to be quoted since I have decided to work with people who use wheelchairs to get about.

Using the body’s parts in unconventional ways challenges accepted ideas of what “human bodies are supposed to be like and how they are supposed to appear in social space“. Butler in this way links the disabled body with the gendered body – that if certain body parts are used or move in a certain way, ways which don’t conform with standard ideas of masculinity and femininity, then identities can be called into question:

“one thing I think both [gender and disability] movements do is get us to rethink what the body can do – what are its abilities and what are its actions and what are its modes of receptivity – and free up our understanding of how we can make use of what we have and for what purposes…
challenging certain very entrenched ideas of how those things are supposed to line up.” (ibid, p 204)

This is an idea central to Butler’s thought: that notions of heterosexuality are “falsely naturalized” through gender performance, and queer performance (such as drag or butch/femme) by playing on the apparent disparity between the performer’s anatomy and the gender of the performance “implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency” (Butler 1999, p 175).

“The disabled person moving through the world on her own terms is disruptive in a way that is similar to a person performing in drag: both signal the status as regulative fictions of certain norms we take to reflect natural attributes of the body” (Abrams 2011, p 79).

Butler discusses the idea of taking risks by asserting one’s rights of mobility, that people perceived to be on the margins of society (gender, race, able-bodiedness) can become victims of violence because it challenges people’s concept of their own stability or fixed identity: one’s vulnerability can be transferred, and this “fear of contact and contagion” makes people want to assert their power, to avoid contemplating their own dependency, fragility or “precariousness” as she terms it (Taylor, p 207). This realization that the body is vulnerable, in Butler’s view, results in social violence against marginal groups:

“people who look more permeable, who look more dependent, who look less defended, is a way in which impermeability on the side of the people who are violent is managed: you be the permeability of the body, you stand for the vulnerability of the body, and I will be the impermeable.” (ibid, p 208)

Taylor defines the social model of disability in the following way – she says that her impairment, the fact that her body cannot move in certain ways, medically termed arthrogryposis, prevents her from reaching up and plucking fruit from a tree if she so desired; while disability is a form of social repression, since the disabling effects of society mean that she does not experience equal access to housing, a career, etc and she becomes socially isolated. Here she explains the difference between the embodied impairment and how that impairment is exacerbated by conditions in society, what Butler posits is “the social organization of impairment… The way impairment is addressed or fails to be addressed by social means” (Taylor, p 195). This is a key distinction in disability advocacy, and fundamental to the ADA, but has come under attack since “the idea of a body constituted by its environment has exceeded mainstream legal norms, which posit the body as this kind or that kind, same or different, the static, determinate starting point for everything else” (Abrams 2011, p 76).

The pair speaks about the fact that it is a myth or a false idea that the able bodied person is self sufficient, for we are all somehow dependent on each other in society. This is a notion that Galvin mentioned, and one that Butler may explore in some depth in her work (need to look up). This interdependence manifests itself in our need for help, for support. Unfortunately, asking for help is looked down on in society, and so Sunaura had difficulty at first finding the courage to ask for help in a coffee shop, but then changed her attitude and saw her demand as political protest, as help is something we all need. Butler sees it as political since she is challenging protocols of how things are done, and how help is asked for, not just on a personal level, but for everyone in a similar position.

Butler makes a reference to Deleuze’s question “What can a body do?” which has been pointed out is a transformation of Spinoza’s dictum: “Nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do, without being determined by mind, solely from the laws of nature insofar as it is considered as corporeal.” The idea that nobody really knows what the body is capable of since it is always governed or reined in by consciousness and cognition. How can we understand how the mind or soul works if we don’t even understand the basics of how our body functions, “what is capable of affecting our body, of destroying it“. In this sense, nobody really knows what he is capable of. Deleuze also says, citing Spinoza, that a body is made up of infinite collections of smaller and smaller sets of bodies, or modes, and it is only under conditions of movement and rest that the relationship between them is forged. As such, it is only as a relation of movement and rest that the infinitely small parts sum up to create a whole individuality: “all existence is by definition composite“. We exist as individuals only in the sense that we are the sum of our individual parts and how they move in unison.

simple parts have neither an essence nor an existence of their own. They have no internal essence or nature; they are extrinsically distinguished one from another, extrinsically related to one another. They have no existence of their own, but existence is composed of them: to exist is to actually have an infinity of extensive parts” (Deleuze 2005, p 207).

If, as Butler has done, we translate this idea onto humanity, it means that none of us has any existence of our own, outside of the human community, and we gain our existence only by means of acting together in unison, according to a determined relationship (ibid, p 208).

Butler goes on to speak about the necessity of rethinking the human as a site of interdependency, that we all assist each other with our basic needs, and that these basic needs should be addressed as social and not individual or personal issues. We require so many conditions to be met before we can exercise what we view as our autonomy. Gaining recognition is a way of negotiating, producing the societal conditions under which we prefer to live:

“gender is kind of constituted socially, interrelationally. It doesn’t generate from me, it’s not an expression of my individual personhood; it’s my effort to negotiate a social world on which I’m radically dependent.” (Taylor, p 209)

We rely on recognition, since as radical individuals we cannot suitably address issues of identity, which is constituted socially, and as such requires entering social space and interacting with others to challenge what is normative and what is not. Since our bodies are indeterminate, we need the recognition of society to perceive what our bodies reflect, and thus form our identities.

Taylor then asks:

“What do we want a society to be? Do we want a society that only values people for the ways in which their bodies are efficient or fit these norms of productivity and profit? Or do we want society to value the sort of dependency that all people share?” (ibid, p 211)

Butler asks whether we still consider the human community as one of interdependency or as one that requires maximal economic advancement, where certain lives are not worth valuing or protecting and Taylor interjects – or worth giving birth to (a reference to abortion). This also ties in with what Butler has elsewhere noted, that the state operates to enforce norms of what counts as human and what doesn’t, and she sees this as a measure of the grievability of certain lives over others: “whose life, if extinguished, would be publicly grievable and whose life would leave either no public trace to grieve, or only a partial, mangled, and enigmatic trace?” (2009, p 75).

In conclusion, Butler posits that our social and political world should be reorganised on the basis of the recognition that we as humans need each other in order to address our basic needs, and this is set as a challenge to the myth of individualism.


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