As a poet, I’m fascinated by metaphor, and as an activist, I’m often puzzled and dismayed by it. The recent Society for Disability Studies conference gave me a lots of grist for my continued musings about metaphor.
In their excellent presentation/paper “How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays: A Call for Intersectionality within Disability Studies,” Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Marcus Ware challenge the metaphoric use of the word colonize to describe the ableist marginalization of disabled bodies/minds, which are often presumed both in Disability Studies and the Disability Rights Movement to be white. Ejiogu and Ware write: “While it’s necessary to pay close attention to the many violences done onto particular bodies in order to maintain notions of able-bodiedness, intelligence, sanity, and productivity within a capitalist market, the appropriation of the term colonialism erases violent histories and contemporary realities. As people who carry with us transgenerational injuries as a result of legacies of colonialism and slavery, but who also benefit from ongoing gendered colonial violence enacted onto First Nations peoples in Canada, this (mis)use erases these violences while ignoring the messy ways in which power, privilege, and domination work.” What do white disability activists and academics gain by using the concept/metaphor of colonialism to describe ableism’s impact on disabled people without exploring the specificities, histories, and lived realities of colonialism? Do we (ie white disability activists and academics) think we gain legitimacy? Do we believe colonialism is actually understood in all its horror? Are we trying to disown the ways in which we’re complicit with and privileged by colonialism? What are the ways of talking about the shared forces that insist on owning a multitude of different peoples’ bodies, cultures, and cultures? The answer is certainly not through analogy. As an activist, I am suspicious of metaphor.
The next day at the conference, Riva Lehrer, Sunny Taylor, and Katherine Sherwood spoke at a plenary panel about disability and visual art. In her presentation about her new work, Riva talked about metaphor as a way to communicate bodily experiences, which she framed as ultimately individual experiences of aloneness. She called metaphor a “method of being porous to each other.” I know in my work as much as I rail against disability being transformed into metaphors and signifiers (Peter Pan’s Captain Hook being marked as evil by, among other things, his prosthetic device, to give an easy example), I return repeatedly to metaphor to describe and engage bodily experience. I’m not sure I could abandon metaphor, even if I wanted.
All of which leads me to the complex work of evaluating each metaphor as it appears. Does it appropriate experience? Does it run roughshod over specific histories? Does it ignore, rewrite, or simplify certain kinds of specificity? Does it open a door or close it? Is it a shorthand for analysis or feeling? Does that shorthand hold legitimacy or not and with whom?
I have no conclusions, just a slosh of thoughts.