Tag Archives: reading

Language and Choices

In a brief twitter conversation with the people over at PhD(isabled), I found myself re-reading the Society for Disability Studies’ Guide to Accessible Presentations. The guide mentions using Simple English, or moving towards Simple English. I’ve come across Basic English while teaching EAL (English as an Additional Language), and while I can see the appeal, I find the rules actually restrict language, particularly when it comes to communication between mother-tongue English speakers and English learners, due to the ommission of words that would be included in everyday conversation.

Simple English, or Simplified English, while new to me, seems to be a more comprehensive version, which has a less strict approach to Basic English, increasing the vocabulary list from 850 words, to around 2000. This collection of words is one I recognise again – the General Service List, which is a collection of the most frequently used words in English. There are a number of secondary lists, including one for Academic English – the Academic Word List. This list is used when IELTS is taught – and while lots of them are recognisable as non-academic words, there are also words like “paradigm”, “context”, “ethnic”, and “implications”; these are the sort of words I wouldn’t teach in a General English class until students were already at an advanced level, but would be needed by students who were trying to read an introductory social science textbook.

I have to admit, the idea of writing in Simplified English is both appealing and awful. I do like a run-on sentence, but at the same time, I’m aware that I’m equally irritated by books and articles that I read which seem to be purposefully hard to read – and certainly would be impossible for my IELTS students, or anyone who hasn’t previously been introduced to concepts those texts discuss. I’ve not really thought of myself as a theorist – which is probably to do with having started in tertiary education as a scientist, rather than a sociologist; theory is something I read and try to apply to the world, not wrestle with myself. A lot of the theory I read is the most difficult to understand, and this is why I find Simplified English appealing; I wonder if it would be possible to write theory using a more limited vocabulary – and taking the time to explain topics and concepts as you go.

Another reason this appeals is that I will be using a lot of theory in my research – theories of embodiment, of gender, sexuality, language, power, disability, illness, and pain, and probably half a dozen more I’ll come across in six months’ time and decide are absolutely crucial for me to include. But at the same time, I want disabled people to benefit from my work, and this means my work needs to reach them – and therefore be readable and understandable by people who have no training in sociology or related disciplines.

I don’t know if it will be possible. I don’t know if it will be too wordy – if I’ll end up using complex words as a shorthand for concepts that might take a while to explain, or if it’ll end up less comprehensible because I keep stopping to explain what it is I’m going on about. But, at the same time, I think it’s a concept I’m going to play with.


Foucalt and the social model

I’m currently reading Foucault and the Government of Disability, edited by Shelley Tremain (2005); I read it a few years ago, but not properly, and certainly not critically – so I’m re-reading it.

Foucault is one of those theorists whose ideas I love, but I find wading through his ideas a bit of a struggle – although I admit I often have this issue with a lot of theorists; theory seems to inevitably lead to verbosity. She wrote, with a tendency to write a paragraph when a sentence would do herself.

Tremain’s introductory chapter lays out the basic concept of the book – Foucault’s work on bio-power and government, particularly normalizing structures and concepts that are perceived to empower rather than constrain, can be used to explore disability. The rise of bio-power is linked, briefly, to the development of the concept of normal – which I liked as a concept when Lennard Davis wrote about it in Constructing Normalcy (Disability Studies Reader, 2006, pp. 3-16). I think – or at least I think at the moment – that this concept of the “normal person” is particularly useful when thinking about disability, as well as BDSM and pain – none of them are “normal”, although pain can perhaps be perceived as a normal part of life (indeed, the loss of the ability to feel pain – physically or mentally – is cast as an impairment; it is only when pain becomes chronic that it becomes an impairment).

That said, I have an issue with Tremain’s contention that a Foucaldian understanding of power and government is incompatible with the social model of disability. I will be the first to admit that I have an issue with the social model, in part because of pain; I struggle to see how a strict reading of the social model – that we are disabled by society, not by our impairments – takes account of the problems that impairment can cause; there is little space for links between the two halves of disability and impairment. The experience of impairment, particularly chronic pain – and here it becomes much more about my own experience – is for me disabling, in that it restricts me from doing certain things, or from enjoying activities; it is not, however, an external disabling – I am disabled from within, and no amount of removing barriers is going to stop pain from being a problem.

With Tremain’s reading, the social model uses “juridico-discursive … conceptions of power” (p. 9); power here is repressive, and comes from a centralised authority. However, I would argue that disablement, as a process or experience, is much more about Foucaldian governmentality than it first appears. Yes, there are repressive structures – particularly when it comes to the built environment and physical barriers – but there are also those regimes and technologies, which disable in more subtle ways. The regimes of – for example – psychotherapy and physical fitness – act to disable by creating impairments, or structuring impairments (in this case, mental health issues and weight) as problems to be cured; being sane and “fit” is both the normal, and the empowered way – and remaining mad and fat (and therefore disabled) is a choice. These more subtle regimes of bio-power force disability on the impaired body by creating the idealised, unrealizable normal, then casting it as an empowering choice; it is this that leads into the concept of compulsory able-bodiedness as suggested by McRuer in Crip Theory (2006).

Having said all that – I agree with Tremain’s reading of impairment – “the constitutive power relations that define and circumscribe ‘impairment’ have already put in place broad outlines of the forms in which that discursive object will be materialized … the category of impairment emerged, and in many respects, persists in order to legitimize the governmental practices that generated it in the first place” (p. 11). It is this construction of impairment – as well as the embodied experience of that construction, of being impaired – that needs examining in order for the social model to be improved; society disables the impaired body, it represses and restricts; but the construction of impairment itself is a control upon disability, and unpicking how the two are tightly linked (instead of being discretely consequential) may well help to destabilise disability/impairment to the point where it is no longer possible to be disabled – only somewhere on a spectrum of bodily form.

The Reading List

I’m trying to keep a working list of books I should read (as opposed to the unending collection of papers that I dip into, and continually add to); after getting rid of some old physical geography textbooks, I’ve exchanged their bookshelf spaces for another load, which I intend to work through. I don’t currently have access to a library (that will come in september), so I’m starting with books I want to read deeply, rather than skim through in a rush.

The idea is, now I’ve been talking through my theoretical grounding with Supervisor (and Supervisor 2), I will be reading these texts with an eye towards my own themes, rather than just because the ideas within are interesting. I’m still developing said theoretical grounding, and one of the issues for this first year is going to be making the ground that bit more solid, identifying theorists and theories more firmly.

I’ve decided it’s high time I read Supermasochist (and watch the film too), because so far, discussions of it form the overwhelming majority (of a tiny minority) of texts that have explicitly addressed BDSM and disability together. Most of the others have been on my list for a while; I know I’m going to struggle with Diprose, as I haven’t been able to get into her writing previously; Tremain may well present the same issues – I remember trying to read it a few years ago, and struggling, but sometimes I need to read things a few times to work out what I think they’re trying to say.


The To-Read Pile

Georges Bataille – Eroticism

Rosalyn Diprose – The Bodies of Women

Margot Weiss – Techniques of Pleasure

Elizabeth Grosz – Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism

Shelley Tremain – Foucault and the Government of Disability

Bob Flanagan – Supermasochist


And the re-reading list

Elizabeth Grosz – Space, Time, and Perversion

Elizabeth Grosz – Sexy Bodies

Elaine Scarry – The Body in Pain

Robert McRuer – Crip Theory

Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow – Sex and Disability

The power of penis (sorry, mother)

I’ll freely admit it: I love reading romance novels. I don’t really make any pretence at being one of those people who only ever read great literary works – I read fiction for fun, and I loathe Dickens, and while there are plenty of brilliant classics and worthy tomes, as far as I’m concerned, Georgette Heyer is just as valid as Tolstoy, and each to their own (I will judge you for liking Ulysses, though).

Having said that, being one of those dreadful feminist types, I sometimes find it hard to really balance feminism and romance novels. There isn’t really a Bechdel test for books – the original version pretty much suffices, to be fair – but I’m also in agreement with Alicia Aho’s blog on a Bechdel Test for romance novels – that it needs a little tweaking, but the essential still holds. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a precisely feminist romance novel – could you imaging the arguments over it? Would the heroine acknowledge her cis-gendered priviledge? Are lurid descriptions of sex exploitative? – but I would definitely argue that they aren’t mutually exclusive; they cater for women’s tastes in erotica, and that is feminist.

I’ve been thinking though – always dangerous, that – about romance novels and disability. In terms of heroes (men-identified cis-gendered primary protagonists? Sorry.), disability is not uncommon; thier disability is usually the result of injury. In the heroine, psychological trauma of some variety is usually featured instead of a physical disability – trauma that is usually healed by The Cock and/or The Power of Love.

I don’t make any claims to having read an exhaustive number of romance novels. I haven’t. I tend to re-read the ones I do have – I should join the library instead – but so far I’ve read two with a disabled heroine.

The first – Christine Feehan’s Dark Symphony, part of the larger Dark Carpathians series, which I adore. The heroine was blinded in a tragic accident, but she is a Super Crip, and has overcome this to become famous. And then the hero rolls up, saves her life, and then she gets her sight back after they have lots of sex, because this is a fantasy paranomal romance about vampires and shit, and they’re made for each other and all that. I don’t care, it’s still a brilliant book, but I kind of wish Antoinetta had stayed blind. But they shag anyway.

The second is much older – it was published in 1984 – Sophie Weston’s No Man’s Possession. The heroine is disabled through an accident – which ruins everything and she becomes a secretary. Because that’s what women do, especially when their fiances leave them because the’ve become cripples, and they’re heroines in a Mills & Boon paperback. Awesome. She then takes a job where she goes to Venice, and fancies her employer, and he fancies her, but he’s very mysterious and brooding, so she quits when he comes onto her. Then – miracle of miracles – she is sent to a hospital in Switzerland (the glamour) and she is cured and she gets her life back – and her former employer is her doctor who saves her and loves her and they get engaged and they haven’t had sex once. She tries – albeit vaguely – to be an independant, strong woman, but ultimately she is saved by a big strong man and is no longer crippled.

But you know what? Once, just once, I’d like there to be a disabled heroine who is not cured. Who stays disabled, despite the power of cock/love/man, and is loved nonetheless, who is strong nonetheless (but is not once of those long-suffering Heroic-Tragic Crip types, because that is a particularly disappointing stereotype). I want a feminist heroine, who happens to be disabled, who enjoys sex and love and romance, and a hero who respect her and fancies her and fucks her several ways until sunday (and is fucked in return).

I’m asking too much, aren’t I?