Eyeing Difference: Creating Disability
By Nookaraju Bendukurthi
I say that I cannot I see with my (two) eyes. I don’t/cannot care/wait for your acceptance that I see only with my left eye. I think, its okay, if I say that I was left with the left eye! I might say that I see with my eyes, but the fact is that I can see the whole world only with my left eye. I have my right eye but it is a bionic one. I am dependent on an assistive technology in order to make myself independent, in order not to be dependent. I use a bionic eye in place of my right eye, which might imply that I am a dependent. But the fact is that I have not lost my independence.
I use photo grey glassed spectacle to protect myself while protecting the ‘assistive’/bionic eye. This is another assistive technology to protect the assistive technology which is already in place – the ocular prosthesis eye. You may understand this usage in simple terms as wearing a shirt on a short to cover the same body beneath. All these ‘cover up’ technologies I use are the technologies to avoid the possible negative impressions resulting from a sudden occurrence of stare or planned gaze of people in society at my emptied, impaired right eye, which you call my disability. There are two important theoretical illuminations on aspects of both staring and gazing.
You may think that I have been making attempts to cover up my impairment, seemingly to escape the disabled tag. But I call it as my technology of self in order to present myself in an acceptable manner. This tagging or labeling happens at two levels of human perception-building, particularly through functionality of the ‘normal’ eye. Thanks to my Ph.D. readings, I was introduced to two important theoretical aspects in understanding how the social world interpret and reflect in the production of its regular social behaviors.
First, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson sees ’stare’ as a form of human communication. For her, it consists of communal vocabulary expressed through the eyes. The very nature of staring is contrasted with the normative looking and it is invested with certain meanings. These meanings always carry complex cultural and historical lineages. These unseen powers of society govern the staring and follow the prescription based on people’s socialization executed through the eyes. Staring is a strange effort for making sense of the inexplicable, incoherent and unfamiliar thing or an object.
In the second case, Jacques Lacan’s theory, gaze is grounded in a concrete object. The physiological discomfort occasioned by the flash/es of light from the object blends with and reinforces a qualitatively similar affect that comes from a quite different source is what is known as gaze. To be more clear and precise, it is an experience of a feeling of discomfort in the psyche and it is not just of physiological origin. This feeling of experience lurks in the unknown space of the psyche and emerges, when an encounter occurs with the relatively unfamiliar and unknown.
Well, does it not sound interesting to know that my impairment is reflecting a philosophy? Yes, you heard right, a philosophy of light and opacity, for that matter. This philosophy is associated with the gleam of light and a strange contingency. No matter if you’ve ever realized or not, people exposed (in light) to my impairment, I am sure, experienced a palpable and excessive anxiety in their minds (in opacity) as an onlooker. Staring is a state of a visual encounter that takes place in the perfect presence of light sufficient to the glancing eye. Staring occurs when physiological discomfort causes the mind through the eyes to transform it into experience. But, in the act of seeing, there is, at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. To be precise, the lighting on my impairment is responsible for the excitement of your optic nerve. Otherwise you are as blind as my blind fraternity.
Gazing is a physiological exercise directed towards an irreparable part of my body: an impairment or my impaired eye. Gaze has a somewhat different procedure in exerting its embodied power. Both the reactions to my visible impairment and the set attitudes of individuals towards me or any of my disabled brethren, constitutes disablement.
From the above discussion, we can ask: How does my impairment become instrumental in bringing together the body, mind, and speech to constitute disablement/disablism. Each of these methods could be a form of domination, adoration, curiosity, surprise, allegiance, disgust, wonder, befuddlement, openness, hostility, and, may be, reverence too. The point of discussion here is not only the eyes of the normal or able-bodied people, which stare at my impairment/impaired eye (object) in the light and just in front, but an eye within (the self) gazing from an unknown distance that generates meanings and is responsible for the future attitudes of these self-declared normal people. It is therefore, probably the societal encounters of impaired bodies, which we can see as an act of uncomfortable resistance, because a constant and conscious look is directed towards impairment rather than the individual with an impairment. This relational ’turn around’ works in both ways: it is responsible for the social withdrawal of the people with disabilities and institutionalizing the ’scrutiny’ as an agent of social anxiety.
What I read from your stare is that, as a viewer, you try to associate my impairment (disabled ‘objects’ for you) with the field of your experience. A strange power of imagination colors the interpretation/s, resulting from your socialization and subjective cultural understanding. This could be because of the power of your imagination first on my impairment, instead of me as a person. The shape, position, angle or the movement (if at all) of the dead organ in my lively body vibrates in your consciousness. Gaze could be a helpful source of understanding in order to establish the positive localisation of the visible impairments in an individual. People with disabilities carry their own ‘Panopticon’ with them wherever they go. I mean, they carry their own image function of being another, the ‘other’. Impaired bodies constitute, in Foucault’s ‘panoptic gaze’, the subjectivity of individuals in its field of view. Stare, as a disciplinary power, can be capable of materially penetrating the body in depth without depending on the mediation of the subject’s own representations, though people’s consciousness has to be interiorized first.
Interesting or ironic in both these cases, it is I, the person with the impairment, who has been subjected and reexamined as a subject of un-realistic anxieties, pressurized under a constant thread of fear of being looked at, and more as a symbolically recognized. Though both of them – stare and gaze – have their historical relevance in/of practice, what is unfamiliar is their philosophy of difference and the way they attribute the disablement to disablism. Non-functional organs in the human body (impairments) take their breath in the constitution of the onlooker’s conscience as a non-visual means of communication. Perception building is governed by stare or gaze, as a manifestation of power, a power that governs human body and its organs.
The socially and the culturally inscripted rules inscribed through socialization of human nature is what constitutes the disablement or disability practice. What is awesome is: Whatever the form of impairment, universal acceptance leads to institutionalizing of the disability, no matter what you stare or gaze at! What you (if you think you are a member of the normal society) don’t know is that your stare or gaze at my impairment results in reducing my ability of being impaired in the external space of society but also it exposes your parochial views that clog your formidable thinking space. I’m sure, you need a check up, don’t you think so?
[Nookaraju Bendukurthi is a Research Scholar (P.hD.) at the Department of Communication, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts & Communication, University of Hyderabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]