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The Disabling of Ability

A lie

That persists

Is a word without

A body?

  • DiGennaro, ’14

As the Free the Body project directive is to address notions and exercises of and against Women’s Liberation, Abolition Feminism, the Pro-Choice Movement, Abortion Rights, and Human Rights through an immersive, interdisciplinary, participatory art-installation experience, we can immediately note, see, and feel perceived and real personal, cultural, social, and political attitudes, dynamics, and policy rails marking off roles of the controller and the controlled – the owner and the owned. That is to say, imagined, implied, implicit, and explicit Power exercises - with a capital P. Notably, in future blogs, we’ll look more deeply at core sources of information and insight that I am drawing from as I develop work within the Free the Body project. In the meantime, I’d like to begin our exploration into “freedom” and the many manifestations of “body”, through a basic tenet of the investigation of empowerment dynamics: for better and worse, the role of disability.

Is the notion or categorization of disability dependent upon one being rendered unable? If not, then what is the difference between inability and disability?

In early 2021, I was asked to present some of my education-activist work at a conference in Turkey that centered on “Music Education for People with Disabilities” and “Music Education for Students with Special Needs”. To be sure, while bumps (or mountains) along the road of professional development within this field have occurred, the practice of so-called “special needs” education is a truly noble pursuit with a storied history of positive service to non-normative students of great spirit, goodness, and service. Surely, the profession is ideally and necessarily a calling of grace and compassion – of hope and wonder – in a world often designed to minimize these qualities and this particular (symbolic of the whole?) population.

That being said, I could not help but remember, as I began to reflect upon this matter and prepare my presentation, a particular presentation at a music conference I attended in Miami in 2014. There, a fellow music educator noticed that his “special needs” students, when confronted with the task of “learning how to play” another person’s song, were stumped – unable to complete the task. No matter how many support systems were put in place, they simply could not learn mimetically. However, when the teacher asked them to write their own song, in parts and as a group, these students – diagnosed with severe learning disabilities – excelled. The teacher discovered that the previous, traditional pedagogy had, in fact, dis-abled the students and their efforts. The accepted, systemized process had rendered a group inability – it had rendered them unable to live in this way, a way that was decidedly precious to them. Further, in a (thankfully) temporary blind obedience to a system he’d been raised and trained in, unilaterally, this kind man and talented musician persisted in this oppressive effort, ignorant of its origins as an accepted and de-facto unilateral standard.

As a critical pedagogist, educational practice connects with students as they are, for who they are, as the through-line for learning, growth, and development. It then opens space, provides resources, offers enskillment, and conveys ways of seeing in line with this starting bliss and design of the student, but then gets out of the way as students explore, create, and – especially – build community, continuing the learning process throughout and because of this congruent alignment and setting. This may seem like an over-reductive synopsis of critical pedagogy, or wishful thinking. It’s neither. The point, here, is that critical pedagogy – as genuine artistic practice and viewing – honors and liberates the person and community. Liberatory education. Liberatory art practice. Liberatory politics? It’s happened. It’s why I love working with subaltern cultures – they’ve already rebutted the limiters of the norm, because they have to. It’s a survival instinct. Yet, the risk of in-group/out-group binaries and warfare threatens there, too. That’s another blog.

So, why do we use the term “disability”? What does it mean to be “disabled”? When is someone or something, in fact, “disabled”? Versus “unable”? As to be “disabled” connotes a cause-effect relationship that renders a new reality as markedly different and less capable than a past reality. Is such a temporal condition of “disability” self-presented, self-generated, and/or systemically created, foisted upon the individual or group, abridging a necessary capacity through a process intended to, by design, dis-enable? How might these concerns live, specifically, in the world of “musicking”, both literally and figuratively? How does/might structures of politics and/or pedagogy, theory, practice, and performance contribute to such a scenario? To what end does/might the presence and/or absence of such input render one “disabled”? How do conditions of “ability”, “inability”, or “disability” inherently necessitate and/or inspire one or many to understand and perform in ways that subvert normative, unbroached conventions? That, in fact, enable? That define “able”? That invigorate? That create new constructs and symbols? That display alternate, necessary systems of ability – psychic, physical, social, cultural, political? That incite ‘vision over visibility’? Does such an outcome, ultimately, invert an empowerment/disempowerment valence, actually dismantling “disability” in the process? Or do such efforts create new, but similar, power valances, altogether? Or both?

For the Free the Body project, and within my role as a sound artist, I find myself, more and more, drawn to explore the role of constraints – physical, psychic, programmed, political, etc. - which of course, also, involves the study of the lack of constraint (inherent and/or achieved) - in the service of freedom. For instance, in artistic practice, I contend that we cannot practice our limitlessness without known limiters. In addition, of course, how and when do constraints limit autonomy. The focus, here, repeatedly, is placed on the adverbs “how” and “when”. That is, how and when do external constraints hinder freedom, such as the case concerning access to abortion services over the past year, related women’s health measures, unrelated women’s health measures (are there any? Is this not on an uninterrupted continuum of lack of service?), and other resources specific to women in society (domestic violence judgements, services, and prevention efforts). In doing so, those who identify as male – or even female or non-binary, but as a “free” person in society - must ask themselves similar questions if they are to begin to understand the historical and political power dynamics and roots concerning freedom that are at play, as well as (very importantly), their own conscious and/or unconscious stewardship, servitude, and even support, ironically, under oppressive limiters, both now and in the future, as well as those things purported as freedoms, that ultimately disable healthy individual and collective agency. We will explore this final notion more deeply in future blogs, especially as we delve into Dr. Angela Davis’ formulations of Abolition Democracy and Abolition Feminism where we’ll use both her and others’ notes on the carceral system as a framework for investigation and activism.

Stemming from those questions, how and when are you disabled? Enabled? Enabled after being disabled by the same force? In the same context? At the same time?

And what of the spectrum of freedom – and of the body/ies – that is so often utilized in oppression? But binaried in the public discourse?

In sound art, here, physical limiters in the form of sound pressure levels, frequency appearances, echolocations, resonances, etc. and non-apparent limiters in the form of liminal spaces, phase cancellations, silence, phase shifts, etc. – in other words limiters as those things designed to direct, redirect, inspire, evade, persuade, distract, force reorientation, challenge, guide, trap, etc. – are presented to incite the witness-participant’s own reflection of their own relation and partnership to the work given the setting of the subject matter. Notably, a synaesthetic approach to color, texture, geometry, population, density, light, reflection, mapping, and spatial perception is pervasive and central to the work process in order to synthesize and evoke the many matters and relationships at hand within and surrounding the performance so that the witness-participant may have their own authentic experience of and with the work.

So, question: how is a title, a thematic, a premise not an oppressive limiter? In my opinion, the answer lies in the freedom to ask questions and explore using these elements as the jumping off point, as above, into autonomous space. I hope you feel the same. Can my hope appear as a limiter to you? Seriously! You certainly have the freedom not to!

Next Blog: Is freedom of the body dependent upon a letting go of the body? Or of the mind? Or others? Or all? Or does freeing the body hinge upon an integral habitus of the whole? We’ll discuss the intrapsychic, the projection into the polis, and the blessing of somatic wisdom in the next entry.

Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator

Sound Swatch: SoundCloud

Learn more: Free the Body


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