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.

Linda Edwards said,

July 19, 2008 @ 10:28 am

Eli, I was at the SDS conference, and in the audience at the end of Riva’s presentation when you asked her about metaphor. I appreciated your questions, and I think I understand your concerns about the use of metaphor.

Have you looked at Elizabeth Grosz’s recent work, particularly her uptake of Bergson and Deleuze? I’m thinking in particular of the distinction she makes between qualitative and quantitative difference. The use of metaphor would be a utlization of difference as qualitative, I think: metaphor is rooted in a representational approach to difference whereby the judgement of the difference between one category of subject and another is based upon identity, analogy, opposition or resemblance. These types of judgements are the primary means by which we conceive of the world : x either equals y; x either shares a quality with y; it is either opposed to y or it is like y. Metaphor performs a judgement based upon resemblance, I think – to return to your example, it goes something like this: the effect of ableism on disability resembles the process of colonization. Using metaphor reinforces stability and in the end yields identity.

But Grosz, using Bergson and Deleuze, argues that there is another sense of difference, difference as qualitative, that is neither oppositional nor complementary (ie metaphorical). These are differences that are in the process of being made rather than already given. And indeed, the utilization of quantiative difference covers over and hided qualitative differences. She argues that one of our tasks is to make the distinction between them and to show what the utlization of metaphor (difference as quantitative) leaves out, or omits.

I’ve said enough. But I am hoping to use this distinction in in my own work on anamolous bodies. The book I’m referring to is Nick of Time.

Its fabulous you’ve started a blog – and I love your work.

Linda Edwards

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