A blog about universal and accessible design

Sunday, October 19, 2008

disability and metaphors

This is well-covered in the disability blog-world and in a lot of books on disability: disability and specific impairments are so often used in literature/movies/everyday speech as metaphors. I generally think of this as a thoughtless, uncritical thing-- for example, saying "blind rage" when you really mean something more specific. I like what Steven Kuusisto adds in a post about the movie "Blindness"-- here:

The film "Blindness" which is now in theaters offers the latest instance of what scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have called "narrative prosthesis" where in effect, disability is used as an artificial device to help what is otherwise a weak story line.

Blindness remains a frightening disability in no small measure because the literal condition, the disruption of the physical eye is invested with outworn symbolism that still resides in what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the cultural subconscious. People may know next to nothing about eye diseases but they know deep in their bones that there's something suggestive and darkly portentious about the blind.


There are of course real lives in the balance. As I have said many times previously on this blog the unemployment rate for the blind remains unacceptably high in the United States and around the world. The film "Blindness" or the execrable novel that birthed it are guilty of false disability figuration--aesthetic choices that can only further harm real people.

This also reminds me that I find "prosthesis" to be a really interesting metaphor too-- the collection Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Cultural Histories of Prosthetics comments on this a little in ref. to Donna Haraway and other theories of technology and society, and it is prevalent in sci-fi too. I don't think we have to abandon all metaphors out of over-sensitivity... but I'm not sure how to unpack the meanings of prosthesis. I am also kind of intimidated by a lot of the theory that uses is, a la Haraway, so that probably doesn't help. I don't necessarily think being aware of disability (or any other social/political minority) issues means ending all use of metaphors-- it just means choosing words more carefully. Perhaps using "prosthetic" or "crutch" has different meaning if you really use a literal one.

as a side note, if I may gush, I love Kuusisto and his book Planet of the Blind-- which proves that one can talk about blindness in a lyrical way without resorting to lazy metaphor. I have been reading his blog for a while, and I love too the way he puts himself into the discussion-- in this recent post the title is "how many stories am I holding up?"; another time he joked about getting a t-shirt that said "I am not your metaphor." I dig it and would so like to take a class with him (he teaches writing and film at the U of Iowa).

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