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13
Sep 16

Dis/ability Thoughts, with Hermione Granger as Guest Start

Sometimes, my orals readings synthesize as I’m reading them, where they sort of blend together — in a generative sense — and I find myself writing about a hodgepodge of readings all tied together.

Other times, like this time, when an exceedingly strange yet gorgeous mix of Brandi Carlile and Beyoncé is seeping out of my computer and into my brain, into my body, my notes might come out almost in list form, taking on the kind of discipline that my lip syncing, fan fictioning body is lacking at the moment.

So: some meditations on readings from my dis/ability list and what great crossover potential they have with my other lists (on affective whiteness in composition classrooms and trauma in children’s/YA literature) —

The Elizabeth Donaldson article on “The Corpus of the Madwoman” discusses at length the trope of the ‘madwoman,’ which has cross-list importance for me: there are a lot of YA novels with protagonists whose mothers are somehow mentally dis/abled that I’m also reading for this list (The Hunger Games is perhaps the most popular contemporary example of this, and The Golden Compass also comes to mind. My MA thesis focuses on trauma in The Hunger Games, and contains some discussion of the problematics of the representation of Katniss’s mother.)
Donaldson critiques Gubar and Gilbert for using “madness” as a metaphor instead of discussing mental illness. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of slippage in the discourse between ‘madness’ as a metaphor and ‘madness’ as a reference to mental dis/ability: this slippage often leads directly to the conflation between violence and mental dis/ability; between abstract metaphor and lived experiences of immense pain, immense joy. Donaldson argues that feminist theory has often hijacked “madness” as a sign of feminist rebellion, when actually, there are a lot of dis/ability-related specifics that feminist theorizations often ignore through their uncritical use of metaphor.
This is very important to me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that many YA novels and TV shows metaphorize trauma with the way that they make trauma responses an almost canned, highly gendered response to violence. Grey’s Anatomy comes to mind, as do Quantico and The 100. (The Hunger Games constantly comes to my mind, so I almost feel like it goes without saying.)
Regarding the use of “madness” as a sign of feminist rebellion, however, I actually wonder if there are potential uses of that: if dis/ability is taken seriously and the rhetorical agency of people with mental dis/abilities is actually valued, then why must the two (feminist rebellion and mental dis/ability) be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they must be, somehow (even though I very much love Donaldson’s points here).
To have fun with this for a moment, I want to pause on Hermione Granger: the only spell she ever has on-page difficulty with is the Patronus, which requires you to conjure up and hold onto your happiness like a shield against a cold, solid cloud of impending, ever-lasting depression. My headcanon has long been that Hermione experiences depression. How might this depression interact with her positioning as the reason Harry ever can accomplish… well, anything? How might we restructure our thinking about Hermione’s “madness” — she is even called mad (mostly by Ron) throughout the series — as both metaphor and lived reality? What dimension might our labeling of Hermione as “mad” — or, perhaps, Hermione’s labeling of herself as mad — take on if we use the term to grapple both with mental dis/ability and her (proto)feminist positioning in the text? If she does indeed live with depression, what do Harry’s ability to conjure a Patronus and Hermione’s struggles to do so imply about the gendered nature of trauma, of mental dis/ability, of structural reinforcement of confidence and healing? What of Hermione’s desperation to prove herself and her terrible fear of failure in the face of a society that scorns both women and Muggle-borns, especially when Hermione is hailing from an upper-middle class  background (and if we read Hermione as a woman of color, how does this further play out)? What of Ginny and Luna’s Patronuses and traumas and mental dis/abilities (I’ve always wondered about Ginny and depression and, quite frankly, about Ginny and bipolar: not in the context of diagnosis, but in the context of identification with a character…)?
I feel an article coming on…
Amy Vidali’s article on “Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show” for college admissions tugs on a lot of things that are also on my comp-rhet list: instead of only viewing the colleges’ invitations to self-disclose dis/ability in college admissions essays as a form of fetishizing disempowerment (which it is!), Vidali reads these essays against the grain to argue that dis/abled students wield self-disclosure to advance their own goals, as well.
This re-orients rhetorical agency into the writing arsenal of dis/abled students, while still critiquing the way that colleges pressure students to subsume themselves into their various marginalized identities in essays.
What might this simultaneous understanding of individual agency and structural power do in our composition classrooms? I’m thinking of this particularly in terms of white teachers assigning personal narratives to classrooms full of students of color. What might students expect white teachers to expect? How might the power of this affective whiteness eat into the intellectual stimulation available for students of color? Yet how might students be able to subvert expected expectations through their writing, even in contexts where their writing seems to conform to what white teachers desire?

Stephanie Kerschbaum examines similar phenomena, but in academic writing, in her piece “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” She reiterates much of the same logics as Vidali, applying them to the pressure to self-disclose in academic articles (while somehow managing to not make one’s writing ‘unacademic’). Her most generative point for me is when she advocates for a temporal understanding of self-disclosure:

“disability self-disclosures can be understood as the culmination of recurring processes in which past experiences are brought to bear on a present moment as individuals recognize opportune moments for action. This understanding of disclosure is facilitated by recent theorizing on agency focused not on intentional choices but on immersion in and involvement with social contexts.” (63)

This immersion of self-disclosure of dis/ability in recurring processes moves attention away from the kind of liberalized romanticization of personal choice and toward something more akin to the social model of dis/ability, which intimately and inextricably relates the individual to their external context.

Following up on this temporal emphasis, Jenny Slater, in “Youth for Sale”, discusses the fetishization of youth and how that relates to dis/ability politics. She figures youth as a fantasy of adulthood, an aspiration of adulthood, thereby disrupting linear temporal narratives of time and aging. Most crucially, here, she writes that

“Aging is interwoven with ideas of bodily capability and normality: as well as learning that time has a ‘value’ in the classroom, children also get taught that a ‘good’ body” is controlled and controllable.” (203)

In this way, idealizing youth is inextricable from idealizing “controlled and controllable” able-bodymindedness! This is hugely important for me when thinking both about teaching writing to teenagers and in my studies of young adult and children’s literature, for perhaps obvious reasons: the very discussions of age that permeate most of my work are also, inherently, about fantasies about ability.

Works Cited

Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness.” NWSA Journal 14.3 (2003): 99-119.

Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” Rhetoric Review 33.1 (2014): 55-71.

Vidali, Amy. “Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show: Disability, Student Writing, and College Admissions.” College English (2007): 615-641.


07
Sep 16

Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms

I often chortle way too hard, and way too long, at my own jokes. Especially at my own puns. So when in the title, I write of Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms, I do intend the pun: comp meaning composition, but comp also meaning compulsory.

Because our comp/osition comp/ulsory classes are usually gatekeeping classes: and these gates, as Carmen Kynard writes brilliantly in her Vernacular Insurrections, are designed specifically to keep students of color out.

It is through this mechanism, among too many others, that white institutions like higher education conflate dis/abled bodies with bodies racialized as non-white. If composition (composing oneself in a particular way) is “basic” and necessary to go on to take other courses (compulsory), then those for whom comp poses a barrier are written off as less than capable.

I have written about this a lot, and I think about it each time a colleague or friend shows me a syllabus. I have come to flinch at the tiny yet insurmountable fences within the larger gates: fences like “participation” defined in only one way, like “presence” defined as only one mode of attendance, one mode of interaction.

Margaret Price has written extensively — and powerfully — in Mad at School about the tremendous hostility of the very nature of the (current) academy toward mental dis/abilities (actual or perceived). Because hers is such a powerful text for me, I will trust it to pop up in many other places, and will not dwell on it primarily here.

I want to, now, focus on the affective aspects of all of this: the compulsion to compose oneself in a particular kind of way. In a white, able-bodied kind of way.

Price discusses the immense and often insurmountable amounts of affective labor involved in navigating the academy’s many hypervalued kairotic spaces; here, I want to pull back from the implications of that affective labor to pull out what, even, affect is.

According to Gregg and Seigworth,

“Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of force or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1).

Affect, here, reminds me of quantumstuff that is neither waves nor particles: affect cannot be pinned down, cannot be defined. It is always present, but only when acknowledged does it seem to take on a tangible form, a definition of sorts. Indeed, as they go on to state, “the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and be affected” (2).

I focus on capacity here because this is often understood as a trigger word to mean dis/ability. How does bodily capacity impact one’s ability to affect and be affected in a classroom? If a student — or professor, for that matter — simply does not have the energy to engage in traditional ways, but rather must keep their head down and avoid more than the barest of smiles when the rest of the class laughs, how does the affective capacity of the body that is the course content and the classroom atmosphere change around this student? Likewise, how does an unpermissive classroom atmosphere which looks down upon students who are not currently able to look up, to “seem like” they’re paying attention, impact the rest of the class? How might a classroom that encourages students to engage their own bodies in ways that make them comfortable and best able to learn during class differently form an affective mold around said student or professor?

All of this, of course, has centralized on presentation, on performance, on bodies navigating what kinds of bodily composure are considered acceptable, and which kinds of bodily composure compulsory.

When pressed, I’ve found that largely, the affective impact of a student slumping down, for example, rather than putting their eyes front and sitting up straight — especially if the reason for this is unreported and unexplained — will be reported as an aesthetic issue. ‘It just feels like they’re not paying attention. It’s distracting because… because it brings the mood down.’

This burden of affective impact being placed on a person navigating the constraints of hegemonic expectations links very deeply to Sara Ahmed’s thoughts on ‘melancholic migrants’, ‘feminist killjoys,’ and ‘unhappy queers’: the feminist who calls attention to casual sexism, for example, is deemed responsible for bringing the mood down, rather than the responsibility being placed with the sexist act/patriarchal structure itself.

Seigworth discusses this non-tangible nature of these affective stances — of how bodies impact each other in classroom spaces — when he writes about affect in a narrative way, as a concept; his form mirroring and reinforcing his content. He describes reading a piece by Lawrence Grossberg, recalling that it

“was written in a vibrant but rather unwiedly theoretical language that detailed this passionate thing called “affect” in ways that I could not always quite follow, although fortunately the musical references were immediately recognizable and that helped me to roughly intuit the theory” (19)

This is a powerful statement about “vernacular” theories and knowledges existing outside of dominant academic discourse: here, Seigworth validates the knowledge involved in felt senses of things based on felt and familiar cultural references.

Gregg, for her part, finds these kinds of felt senses and cultural references in the constraining nature of “scholarly affect.” She writes that “the corporate university culture consecrates a kind of compulsory convivality in the workplace… from the smiley faces of office email to the team-building exercises of after work drinks — which defines the landscape of affective labor in the information economy” (24).

I’m particularly interested in this notion of compulsory affective labor — what Price writes about in terms of compulsory collegiality — because I am curious about how the burdens of this affective labor is differentially distributed across the academy. When a new professor has a 5-4 course load, for example, how does the incredibly large amount of affective labor involved in this teaching get discounted? How do our syllabi, our course designs, our classroom setups and activities, place differential amounts of affective labor on certain students?

Gregg proceeds to highlight the ways that workplaces limit affective range by dictating what forms of affect are acceptable and which are not:

“For if it is clear that this networked world without enemies cannot really ease the loneliness of the office cubicle or writer’s garret, affect theory may help us fight the limited range of subjective states available in the contemporary workplace, and in doing so, help us identify and denounce the distribution of winners and losers in contemporary society” (24)

In our classrooms, how does the fine line between ‘proper behavior’/’acceptable participation’ and ‘apathetic’ operate differently for different groups of students or, indeed, for different professors? If affective expression is limited to the realm of affective whiteness — which, in short, is a dearth of affective expression, unintentionally alluded to above, that José Esteban Muñoz wrote about — yet mandates that students appear to be active, but not too active, with participating in lessons, what affective labor do different students endure to walk the tight rope between these requirements?

What happens, in other words, when students cannot or will not compose their bodies in the ways they need to in order to perform this tight rope act?

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press, 2010.

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. SUNY Press, 2013.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 40.1 (2014).

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011.


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