Manifesto of the Disabled Text

[This is an article Joyelle and I co-wrote for New Ohio Review. I thought some participants in this blog may be interested in it. Apologies about the length.]

Manifesto of the Disabled Text
by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson, Action Books

1. Discomfort with a translated text is discomfort with a disabled text. (“But the text can’t stand on its own!” “But something is lost, ruined, missing!”, etc.)

2. As do disabled bodies, disabled texts create a nervousness with reference to able, or enabled, texts and bodies. They give the lie to the supposed centeredness, completeness, originariness of able, enabled, or ‘original’ bodies and texts. Such nervousness is already an admission that all is not as stable—with our bodies, selves, and texts-- as we are led to believe we should believe.

3. Disabled texts need no longer comply with compulsory ablebodiedness.

4. This manifesto is a call for readers, teachers, publishers, editors, and translators to examine and overcome their discomfort with disabled texts and to resist compulsory ablebodiedness in their translation, publishing, teaching and reading practices.

5. But what is compulsory ablebodiedness? The phrase comes from disabilities studies, and was adapted by the theorist Robert McRuer from Adrienne Rich’s paradigm of ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ ‘Compulsory ablebodiedness’ refers to the destructive, normalizing requirement placed on disabled bodies by society. In Kim Q. Hall’s, figuration, below, ‘compulsory ablebodiedness’ is contiguous with other destructive and difference-erasing paradigms:

Informed by Michel Foucault's concept of "disciplinary normalization" (1979), feminist disability studies interrogates the complex web of institutionalized techniques of normalization that sustain patriarchy, white supremacy, class power, "compulsory ablebodiedness," and compulsory heterosexuality (McRuer 2002). These myriad, mutually reinforcing techniques of normalization subject bodies that deviate from a white, male, class privileged, ablebodied, and heterosexual norm. Seemingly unrelated technologies such as orthopedic shoes, cosmetic surgery, hearing aids, diet and exercise regimes, prosthetic limbs, anti-depressants, Viagra, and genital surgeries designed to correct intersexed bodies all seek to transform deviant bodies, bodies that threaten to blur and, thus, undermine organizing binaries of social life (such as those defining dominant conceptions of gender and racial identity) into docile bodies that reinforce dominant cultural norms of gendered, raced, and classed bodily function and appearance.

6. Translations, as disabled texts, pose the same challenges to the conventional norm as disabled bodies do. They deviate from monolingual textual expectations, and are thus deviant. They threaten to blur, and thus undermine, organizing binaries of social/textual/literary life (such as those defining dominant conceptions of gender/genre and racial/national/linguistic identity). ‘Compulsory ablebodiedness’ requires that translated texts function as docile bodies that reinforce dominant cultural norms of genred, raced, and classed bodily/textual function and appearance.

7. When publishers, teachers, readers, or translators themselves require the translated text read ‘as if it were written in English’, as an ‘elegant’, ‘fluent’ ‘good’ poem ‘in English,’ they collude with and enforce such ‘compulsory ablebodiedness.’ And this is a best-case scenario, for too often publishers’, teachers’, and readers’ anxiety over translation as an incomplete, diminished, impaired version of an original results in translation not being published, taught, or read at all.

8. The effects of compulsory ablebodiedness on translation are intense and repressive. Translations are excluded from most publications, from most prizes, from most workshops, from most ‘English’ literature classrooms, and from most performances.

9. But while affirming McRuer’s diagnosis of ‘compulsory ablebodiedness’ and applying the phrase to the status of translation viz. text culture, we depart from Hall’s formulation, quoted above, in that we do not see the prosthesis as symptom of ‘compulsory ablebodiedness,’ that is, as a function of the requirement that disabled bodies or texts ‘pass’ as original, intact or able.

10. Instead, translation is the prosthetic that calls attention to its own un-naturalness; it is the peg-leg that deterritorializes the body. Then again, it is the peg-legged lady who refuses to wall-flower, who takes the stage, who is tantamount to the barn, who invites us to a barn-dance within her own leg wherein we wave our termitic jaws.

11.Translation is not only the text rendered into a new language; it is the entire operation. We don’t speak of the original and the translation, that is, the original and the plagiarized copy. When we say “translation” we mean the entire on-going process. And this process in all its ongoingness is the prosthetic.

12. We find synchronicity between our model of the prosthetic and that developed by David Wills in his work of criticism, Prosthesis. Among many wonderful new paradigms and disruptive subparadigms worked into this prose, Wills suggests “Prosthesis occurs on the border between the living and the lifeless. It represents the monstrosity of interfering with the integrity of the human body, the act of unveiling the unnatural within the natural.” Translation provides Wills with an instance of prosthesis which soon swells to include all acts of writing and reading: “Prosthesis treats of whatever arises out of that relation, and of the relation itself, of the sense and functioning of articulations between matters of two putatively distinct orders: father/son, flesh/steel, theory/fiction, translation/quotation, literal/figurative, familiar/academic[…] French/English, nature/artifice […]”

13. Like Wills, we wear prosthetic goggles, they’re the same as our eyes, we see the translation prosthetics in every text. In Aase Berg’s 2001 book Forsla fett (Transfer Fat), pregnancy – that capacious metaphor for the natural, and for the ‘natural,’ ‘spontaneous’ act of poetry writing – becomes all prosthesis. Translation (English tracts of string theory, zombie flicks and D-list movies, science fiction novels) is the constitutive action of the book. This un-natural prosthetic, this peg-legged text induces the reader to break down the Swedish language, to see its compounds as “un-natural.” In Berg’s monstrous figuration, the scientific becomes corporeal and the corporeal becomes scientific. Späckhuggaren (killer whale) becomes a späck huggare (blubber biter). The strings of science become umbilical strings. Text and body become a transfer of monstrous fat.

14. In his 1963 sound experiment “Birds of Sweden,” concretist poet and artist Öyvind Fahlström translates Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” into “whammo” a language based on exclamations from comic books, permutating the poem into an sonic assemblage of shouts and moans. The prosthetics of the tape-player, of the translation. At the same time Fahlström creates “games,” in which the human body enters a room of moveable imagery; he also dreams of a mass-produced, mass-distributed project, a game called “Babies for Burroughs.” It took a strange marriage with the corporate body of General Electric to birth Fahlström’s omnivorously omnimedia “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” with a montaged cast of cyborgs, geniuses and ecstaticians.

15. Berg and Fahlstrom provide pragmatic models for how publishers and translators can channel their discomfort with the disabled text of translation into pieces that are multiple and already their own variants—visible, dynamic, threatening, prosthetic texts. This may be done by acknowledging and undermining ‘compulsory ablebodiedness,’ by dropping the requirement that texts be capable of ‘standing alone’ as ‘good’ or ‘fluent poems’, by instead inviting translation-the-process into and onto page/stage of the publication, revealing itself to be prosthetic, a mass of umbilical understrings. Practically speaking, this may involve visual appendages such as notes and hypertext, sonic prosthetics like recordings and phonetics, and especially the use of hybrid, invented, proximate, one-off pidgin languages, even the dreaded and verboten translatese. With electronic and web media, the possiblities can only metastasize.

16. We want to insist: All these suggestions are designed to admit the prosthetic status of the text. The text is always already prosthetic. In the case of translation and related practices, prosthetics does not mean to cover up the disabledness of the text, nor to compensate for it; instead it makes the disabledness visible and takes it as a catalyst for irrepressible transformations. Translators and publishers will have to collaborate to bring off this rejection of compulsory publishing conventions.

17. Meanwhile, English and writing teachers must get translation into the classroom by any means necessary. This may be threatening because it may mean presenting works over which the teacher herself does not have mastery. Thus the practical magic by which mastery over the text means mastery over the students will breakdown. Students and teachers will just have to invent an adventurous classroom ethos from there.

18. This is our deal now.

See McRuer, Robert. “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer-Disabled Existence.” In Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Bruggeman and Rosmarie Garland-Thomson, eds., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York; Modern Language Association of America, 2002.
Hall, Kim Q. “Feminism, Disability, and Embodiment.” NWSA Journal, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2003. p. 132. Accessed on Project Muse, http://muse.jhu.edu.lib-proxy.nd.edu/journals/nwsa_journal/v015/15.1hall.pdf, 12/07/2007.
Wills, David. Prosthesis. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Wills, 247
Wills, 10


Anonymous said...

Posted a link to a blog I am part of

Patrick said...

Reply to “Manifesto of the Disabled Text” (http://poeticinvention.blogspot.com/2008/06/manifesto-of-disabled-text.html)

What Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson are doing in their manifesto is appropriating "disability" as a vehicle. Disability is then subsumed in the metaphorical thrust to transgress literary decorum. I deeply sympathize with what seems to be the actual argument: that certain literary conventions, from formal to linguistic conventions, are linked to identity politics with material ramifications, even collusions, for socio-political oppression. This broad argument is worth inflecting in the context of the social model of disability, but we need to be careful that we do as much justice to that context as we do to the issues of cross-cultural and hermeneutic progress implied by the attention the manifesto duly links to translation.

In my own work, I have been willing to push the term pretty far within the bounds of the social model, as I understand it, and with some stake in it beyond rhetoric, as I am both a poet and legally disabled. But this manifesto, at the very least, lacks any palpable self-reflexive gesture, wherein we could find a way to animate some heretofore neglected aspect of disability studies itself. In this sense, by failing to speak for its putative identity-formation, it doesn't really earn the appellation "manifesto."

It seems that deploying disability as a critical category means a category of "impairment" is necessary, too. There's nothing like that here. It's disavowed, in fact. The real social conditions of difference that the field is poised to illuminate disappear.

I have thought through these problems in two forthcoming articles, in Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Journal of Modern Literature, respectively. I’d paste in my very brief piece--“Toward a Post-Ableist Poetics”—if it weren’t yet forthcoming in the 20th anniversary issue of XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics. After it’s out, I’ll drop it in to the thread at the Non-Site Collective (http://www.nonsitecollective.org/node/397), where Eleni Stecopoulos, Amber DiPietra, and others are doing interesting and certainly related work. And finally, someone who’s probably done more to tease out the implications of the relationship of “disability” to “impairment” (i.e. what he calls “complex embodiment) is Tobin Siebers. His new book will be crucial in this regard: http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=309723

--Patrick F. Durgin

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...

What I see in "Manifesto of the Disabled Text," at least as far as translation is concerned, a metaphorical elaboration of an idea developed much more analytically and lucidly by Walter Benjamin in his essay "The Task of the Translator: "that what a translator translates is distance." A translation is an embodiment of distance. I say something similar in my essay, “Ideas Towards a Theory of Translation in Eda,” which can be accessed in this website.

Patrick Durgin’s post also points to the metaphorical aspect of McSweeney’s and Göransson’s argument, separating it from actual, non-metaphorical, physical disability as a category.

2. McSweeney’s and Göransson’s claim that translations as a genre are also “disabled” because no one wants to publish them is a fiction, at least in The United States. In my own experience, an American editor is much more eager to publish a poem (the same poet) if I call it a translation, rather than an “Original” poem.

Of course, the distinction between originality and translation, as it is between originality and “quotation” or identifiable authorship and heteronymity, etc., is blurred. The problematics involved in the relationship between poetic “creation” and pre-existing text is one of the burning issues of poetics in our time.

3. Ironically, the very last poem in Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, “Sir, I Want to write Poems with Flowers,” written by a woman, Didek Madak, in the persona of a woman, has exactly the imagery of a prosthesis. The poem in its entirety is included in Graywolf’s Press’s anthology New European Poets, which just came out:

“My soul was 14, sir,
it got older in the cold of a marble table.
Prosthetic legs were attached to my soul, delicate and white.
I walked in the city squeaking.
They even whistled at the prosthetic legs.
Meanwhile, an unarmed force in me
made of flowers was besieged,
on the screen the rustling of organza was playing.”



Anonymous said...

This manifesto strikes me as irresponsible & theoretically abusive.

Yrs Truly,

Peg Legged Lady Dancing A Jig in The Barn

Johannes said...

Thanks for all these comments, everyone.

It seems we should respond to the variety of points here. First, Patrick suggests that we 'appropriate' disability here, and further suggests that we have failed to make our disability credentials-- our 'legal' disability-- legible.

On the first point: we have no interest in appropriation, but we are interested in entering into the critique of society posed by such thinkers as Lennard Davis, who writes in 'Enforcing Normalcy', "Disability is not an object-- a woman with a cane-- but a social process that intimately involves everyone who has a body and lives in the world of the senses. [...] This study aims to show that disability, as we know the concept, is really a socially driven relation to the body [...] propelled by economic and social factors and can be seen as part of a more general project to control and regulate the body. This analysis fits in with other aspects of the regulation of the body that we have come to call crime, sexuality, gender, disease, subalternity, and so on."

Davis's thinking prompts us to continue his list of scandalous bodies to include the bilingual, multilingual, immigrant, foreigner, stateless, non-fluent, and also the texts or textual bodies which are similarly stigmatized and often (literally)proscribed, as a means to controlling the employment, movement, and access to education and other services. The same instinct that prompts towns to ban the printing of legal forms in Spanish is the instinct that prompts English department to ban translated texts as major texts in the classrooms-- the presence of 'other' languages unsettles structures of power, expertise, control.

Furthermore, our purposes are political. Our manifesto proposes an alliance between the activist dimension of translation studies and those of queer feminist disability studies.

To respond to Murat Nemet-Nejat, the idea that this is just reheated Benjamin seems reductive. Certainly our argument could be seen as coming out of the same tradition as Benjamin - including German Romanticism before him and books like Berman's "The Experience of the Foreign" more recently. It just as certainly makes proposals and carries implications not present in those sources.

As for the "fiction" of translation not being marginalized - your anecdotal evidence doesn't reflect the numbers. A fraction of books published are in translation- a much much lower percentage than in other nations. A fraction of this fraction are taught or reviewed. English depts frequently proscribe or limit the classroom use of texts in translation (as if we could teach Modernism without Futurism etc). I could go on and on. See Lawrence Venuti's books etc. Chad Post has written about it as well.

Finally, we have written several articles exploring this issue further (since this appears in part where the shoe hurts). Like Patrick we have an essay in XCP's 20th anniversary issue. XCP is of course a journal that has long engaged with this issue. We look forward to being in conversation with our fellow contributors and the journal's readers.

Joyelle and Johannes

Patrick said...

I want to clarify my initial response to your piece on "the Disabled Text" and then point out how your reference to Davis fails to adequately respond to my critique of the piece.

First, I don't "suggest" that you are using the term "disability" as a critical category appropriated from another discourse. I explicitly state that you do. In line with this explicitness, it is a stretch to interpret my reference to my own legal status as (note it is not a "claim" to) being disabled as an implicit suggestion that you must show your credentials. The point is that such credence is, as Davis unflinchingly teaches, yet another modicum of the social construction of one's identity--and that that construction is always textual, insofar as it is "always involved" with "symbolic production" (citing a later piece of his). If you try to paint me as an essentialist identity politician, you will fail.

Davis has come the closest to doing away with the category of impairment--the lack of such a concept being the core of my critique, though absent from your response here. But he has never done so. You should look at his later work in _Bending Over Backwards_ and on his "Project Biocultures" website. Attention to social construction does not trump materiality--just the opposite. The perniciousness of essentialism is that it leaves material social structures unexamined. You have done just this, in part, at least, by allowing the term "disability" to stand in for any old socially mediated identity (which is how you figure translated text--texts that hold the promise of infinite linguistic determination). Davis at one point claims that "disability" transcends the familiar postmodern identity categories. But that's a particular claim. To simply use the term as a vehicle without any reference back to the particularity of this vehicle is myopic. Effective, sure. But myopic. The remedy I would support (because I support your interests in the piece, though not your measures) is to devise a comparable category of impairment to describe the two poles (disability and translation). That would round out your metaphor and show us why, in some important sense, we should care about both and understand them as aspects of a related struggle.

As an aside, I've been a subscriber to XCP since 1998, and to my knowledge they have never published an article on disability.

David-Baptiste Chirot said...

The issue of the differences between masphorical and physical "disabilities" is one that has long interested me in terms of a separation of "material language" from the "material world." This is another facet of "distance," which Murat has written of here and which we have collaborated on (in the current issue of Big Bridge) and discussed in letters. To develop an ongoing series of examples and questions regardicng this, I started writing my "Annals o the New Extreme Experimental American Poetry" (and Arts). Two examples of these are online in the current issue of Wordforword and Kaurab Translation Sit Ce, called "Waterboarding and Poetry" and "Non poetry for Non Readers," both concerning the Poems from Guantanamo book. When one writes of "disabled" texts, I think these works produced by tortured detainees, and almost all relegated to oblivion before a few were allowed to be vetted for any sign of a potentially concealed "code" message "embedded" in the poems, and then allowed to be translated only by "non-literary" translators, more than present the reader with a "disabled" text at every level of composition, translation--and, beyond, in their reception ny American reviewers, poets and critics. One of my propositions is that in a sense the American reader and writer is so distanced from lamguage already of their own, that they cannot read these texts in any other but ways which find them "bad poems by bad people badly translated." this separation of language via formal and metaphorical means of "disability" from the actuality of torture and its effects on and in languge, indicates to just what an extent the the entrance of what the french historian Naquet, writing of France-Algeria 1954-62 calls "Torture The Cancer of Democracy" has spread.
Distance and separation can also be ways of ,as they been and are, for removing the "avant garde" from its original connection with the military, as evidenced in Italian Futurism's miltant pro-War stance, and in Dada's miltant Anti-War Anti Art activities. By separating from these originary avnat-gardes which understood the direct connections between language and technolgies of War with Poerty and the Arts, it becomes possible to "disbale" and disconnect from these in order to form the new Forms of diablement in language which create as it were Walls and Security which makes these operations "safe" as it were from the actuality of such things being employed in the world on whole nations and peoples. My concerns are that these methgods which are in many ways "psotive insights" into translation allow at the same time for the privilegeing of some Forms and persons of disablement over others, which is the case, and so continues an anti-democratic movement within a democracy. In many bizarre ways the language taekn for granted in so many discourses becomes ever more tortured in itself in order to distance itself from the actuality of torture and how it is a "disability" which must be in some way continaed so that it may become hidden in plain site/sight/cite. The more that the obvious is dismissed beause itis obvious, the more one finds proliferations of "disabling" techniques being put to use on the language used to justify the events in the first place. The uses of forgery, plagiarism, translations experiments and etc which appeal at one level as "avant garde" in Formal literary usages, are at the ame time the same techniques employed by States and Media for propaganda, the creation of "WMds" "immenent threats," and all the rest of the inciters of War and hatred, genocies and disasters. I think without examining these interconnections and mirrorings, doublings, parllels,many aspects of "radical" critique become "disabled" and so become a part of the cultural reinforcement of extreme measures taken in State policies. (
I should note that i am an SSI-Disability person, due to 3 spinal fusions, a stak of medical histories covering everything including knee damge from a tortrue technique employed buy the CRS in French prisons in France in the aftermath of 1968 events for some years. The usa alone is filled with a huge underclass of disabled persons, stuck at poverty line exitsences, and joined by an ever increasing mass of returning soldiers maimed in countless ways, ho also are being shoved to the bottom of the society, from which many of them came to begin with. I think that the experience of millions of Americans and millions directly made disabled by USA aboard and supported in other States by the USA, is a sign that the lanaguge which addresses diability as something not an isolated Form for use in translation and poetry, but one which is a sympton of an overall society, is one that requires far more awareness. "Disabling" as a method of translation is alreadyalready the priomary means of "reporting the news," and is employed as just that by agencies such as MEMRI, which is the largest supplier of Middle East news to the US media. One of aspects of disabling is that it disables the would be critique of it from being directed at many of the agents of disablement in widespread use in the society. Without examining the sources of which provide "information," one is already working with a disability in that language has been reversed, so that what appears as a critique instead becomes an implicit form of endorsement.
I think that these questions make work with lnaguge and translation more challenging and more necessary across a wider sphere becasue in fact, the spheres being permitted grow actually fewer and narrower. One of the probelms is that in a sphere which is already so disabled, the uses of disability themelves have been disabled a priori, unless one includes also the disabling of lnaguage within one's assumptions and those which one wishes to follow. Thats is why i write that this a challnge, indeed!
all my best
david chirot