Monday, January 10, 2011

What Does It Mean To Take A Walk?

The following is a video Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor going for a walk, while talking about disability and space. How do you perceive space?  What body parts are allowable for certain tasks?  Is someone going for a walk when they are a wheelchair user?  How do we normalize bodies and what leads to acceptance of disabled people?  There are but some of the topics that they highlight and I really believe this is something we can all gain from watching.



Transcript.

Butler:  I thought that we should take this walk together and one of the things I wanted to talk about was what it means for us to take a walk together.  When I first asked you about this, you told me you take walks you take strolls.
Taylor: I do
Butler: And can you say something about what that is for you? When do you do it, and how do you do it, and what words do you have for it?
Taylor: I think that I always go for a walk, probably everyday I go for a walk and umm I always tell people that I am going for a walk; I use that word, and most of the disabled people that I know use that word also.
Butler: Which environments make it possible for you to take a walk?
Taylor: I moved to San Francisco largely because it is the most accessible place in the world and part of what is so amazing to be about it is the physical access, the fact that public transportation is accessible, there's curb cuts most places, most places I'll go there's curb cuts, buildings are accessible and what this does is that it also leads to a social acceptability.  Somehow because there's physical access, there's simply more disabled people out and about in the world and so people have learned how to interact with them and are used to them in a certain way and so the physical access also leads to a social access, an acceptance.
Butler: It must be nice to not always be the pioneer.
Taylor: yes definitely.
Butler: The very first one. To have to explain.
Taylor: To be the first disabled person they've ever seen.
Butler: You do speak, and talk and move and enjoy life and suffer many of the same heartaches that you do. Anyways, what I am wondering about is moving in social space.  Right, like all the movements you can do and which help you live and which express you in various ways, do you feel free to move in all of the ways you wanna move? 
Taylor: I could go into a coffee shop and actually pick up the cup with my mouth and carry it to my table but then that, that becomes almost more difficult because of the, just the normalizing standards of our movements and the discomfort that, that causes when I do things with body parts that aren't necessarily what we assume that they're for.  That seems to be even more hard for people to deal with.
( they walk by a running shoe on the pavement)
Butler: Is that someone's shoe?
Taylor: Yeah that someone's shoe.  I wonder if they can walk without it?
Butler: I'm just thinking that no one takes a walk without there being a technique of walking.  Nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk, umm outside of ourselves.  Maybe we have a false idea that the able bodied person is somehow radically self sufficient. 
Taylor: Yeah.  It wasn't until I was in my early 20's about 20 or 21 that I became aware of disability as a political issue and that happened largely through discovering the social model which is basically: In disability they have a distinction between disability and impairment. 
Butler: Yeah
Taylor: So impairment would be my body, my embodiment right now.  The fact that I was born with (unable to discern condition) which effects, or what the medical world has labeled (unable to discern condition) but basically my joints are fused, my muscles are weaker, I can't move in certain ways and this does effect my life in all sorts of situations, for instance there's a plum tree in my backyard and I can't pick the plums.  I have to wait for them to drop. So, there's that embodiment, our own unique embodiment and then there's disability, which is basically the social repression of disabled people:  The fact that disabled have limited housing options, we don't have career opportunities, we're socially isolated. You know in many ways, there's a social aversion to disabled people.
Butler: So would disability be the social organization of impairment?
Taylor: The disabling effects basically of society.
Butler: What happened? Did you come into contact with disability activists? Did your read certain things?
Taylor: A read a book review actually.
Butler: Oh really?
Taylor: Yeah, and what that happened actually, I lived in Brooklyn. I would really try to make myself go out and just order a coffee by myself and I would sit for hours beforehand in the park just trying to get up the nerve to do that.  In a way it's a political protest for me to go in and order a coffee and demand help, simply because in my opinion help is something that we all need.
Butler: Yes
Taylor: And it is something that is looked down upon and not really taken care of in this society. When we all need help.
Butler: yes
Taylor: and we're all interdependent in specific ways.  Should we stop and get me something warm?
The two walk into a second hand shop, where Taylor purchases a red sweater after Butler helps her to put it on.
Butler: I think gender and disability converge in a whole lot of ways.  But one thing I think both movements do, is get us to rethink what the body can do.  There's an essay by Gilles Deleuze called, What can a body do? And the question is supposed to challenge the traditional way in which we think about bodies. We usually ask what is a body, or what is the ideal form of a body, or you know, what's the difference between a body and a soul and that can of thing but What can a body do, is a different question.  It isolates a set of capacities, instrumentalities or organs and we are an assemblage of those things. I like this idea.  It's not like there's an essence and it's not like there's an ideal morphology. You know, what a body should look like.  It's exactly not that question.  Or what a body should move like.  One of the things I've found when talking about gender and even violence against sexual minorities or gender minorities, people whose gender presentation does not conform with standard ideals of femininity or masculinity is that very often it comes down to how people walk, you know how they use their hips, what they do with their body parts, what they use their mouths for, what they use their anus for or what they allow their anus to be used for.
There's a guy in Maine, who I guess he was around 18 years old and he walked with a very distinct swish.  You know, hips going one way or another; a very distinct feminine walk.  One day he was walking to school and he was attacked by three of his classmates and he was thrown over a bridge and he was killed.  The question that community has to deal with and the entire media that covered this event was: how could it be that somebody's gait, that somebody's style of walking could engender the desire to kill that person.  And that you know makes me think about the walk in a different way.  A walk can be a dangerous thing. 
Taylor: Just remember when I was little, when I did walk I would be told that I walked like a monkey and I think that for a lot of disabled people that the violence and the sort of hatred exists alot in this reminding of people that our bodies are going to age and going to do die.  And in some ways I wonder, just thinking about the monkey comment if it is also (and this is just a thought off the top of my head right now) if it is where our boundaries lie as human and what becomes non human.
Butler: It makes me wonder whether the person was anti-evolutionary.  Whether they were creationists. It's like, why shouldn't we have some resemblance to the monkey?
Taylor: Well the monkey has actually been my favourite animal too.  Quite a lot of that time I was flattered.
Butler: Exactly
Taylor: When in those in-between moments of you know in between male and female, in between death and health, when do you still count as a human? 
Butler: My sense that what is at stake here is really re-thinking the human as a site of interdependency.  And I think when you move into the coffee shop, if I can go back to that for a moment and you ask for the coffee or you indeed ask for some assistance with the coffee, you're basically posing the question that do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other.  Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs and are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal individual issue or your personal issue?   So there's a challenge there's a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment that you ask for some assistance with your coffee cup and hopefully people will take it up and say yes I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other in order to understand our basic needs and I want to organize a social and political world on the basis of that recognition.