A Performative Dialogue with Difference

© 2015 Teone Reinthal. – Grad Cert Vis Arts, MA Hons Med Prod. PhD.

ABSTRACT: Creative expressions are theatres of self-hood; co-ordinated productions of identity portions, directed by an inner witness. Asserting that we (the universal I) are the internal observers of all our own life dramas; (bodies-as-theatre, authors and executive producers of the minutiae of selfhood), I argue that autobiography expands human capabilities for envisioning and actioning ontological validations of selfhood. Creative projections that are exhibitive, provocative and interactive generate bold new opportunities for social reconciliation.


Innumerable scholars contemplate and have contemplated the transient nature of identity; each scholar expanding our sociological understanding of the infinitely complex, constitutive components of the self in relation to other. Ironically, as research, it is a quest for knowledge that also behaves as a fractal, each individual portion of theoretical investigation entirely dependent on reflection of the ‘whole’ in order to find new meaning. Thus, an idea of self becomes integrated and is made reflexive solely by acknowledging its indivisible relationship to the other. Cultural studies scholar, Homi K. Bhabha, challenges stereotypical representations of people in society. He writes:

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives or originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences…These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. (1994, p2)

Bhabha’s depiction of a society culturally defined by its interstitial richness enables an extraordinarily fluid state of selfhood to emerge. Such an open-hearted, open-minded template for identity investigation enables the revision and reframing of previously held cultural references. New questions arise in an evolution of awareness of, and for, each other’s preferred cultural references within complex, locating senses of place and belonging. Bhabha’s critical search for new meaning beyond ‘initial subjectivities’ allows him to ‘elaborate strategies of selfhood’ via a paradigmatic shift that also assumes collective generosity of the ‘whole’. The social potential for Bhabha’s cultural expansion defies inequality and oppression by disavowing the inequities that currently ‘divide by differentiation’. I wonder if such an embrace is possible?

A chameleonic self, perhaps the very self that Bhabha summons from the liminal zone he names ‘the articulation of cultural differences’ may be positively experienced by political and spiritual mavericks, by deliberate outsiders, by writers, by performers, by artists of every discipline and by all those who find accord with dangerous, illegal or restricted cross-cultural alignments. As cultural locations of expanded social possibility, I reason that ‘liminal’ and ‘marginalised’ certainly offer many more freedoms than the closed doors of ‘disabled’. In a vivid introduction to liminal ontology, Elspeth Probyn exhorts us towards a ‘belonging heard not in the pleas for recognition uttered from the sidelines…but enunciated in such a way as to fundamentally rearrange the placement of power, centres and peripheries’ (1996, p29).

How may such a ‘placement of power’ ascend?

In her book Unmarked, The Politics of Performance, Peggy Phelan is largely concerned with analysing and ‘marking the limit of the image in the political field of the sexual and racial other’ (p141). Phelan criticises the impact of ‘visibility politics’ upon marginalised individuals and communities, or as Phelan describes, the ‘under-represented’ (1993, p154). She writes: ‘[b]y locating a subject in what cannot be reproduced within the ideology of the visible, I am attempting to revalue a belief in the subjectivity and identity which is not visibly representable’ (1993, p141). Challenging an ‘understanding of the relationship between visibility, power, identity and liberation’ (p141), Phelan refutes entrenched political beliefs that assume marginalised people require, or necessarily seek greater representational visibility in order to overcome disenfranchisement. As well, Phelan argues the political ‘left’ strives to increase the visibility of marginalised people through awareness raising campaigns, whereas the conservative ‘right’ limits and denies visibility to every other ‘outside’ the exclusivity of the elite clique.

Drawing upon Lacanian psychoanalysis, Phelan argues that both the left and right sides of politics assume that visibility is power; a social and cultural commodity required by all, and particularly by those who apparently languish unnoticed at the margins. Asserting that increased representational visibility may in fact, be neither desired nor sought by the other, Phelan challenges the capacity of representation to stand for ‘the real’. She states: ‘[w]ithin the diverse genre of autobiography the real is considered the motivation for self-representation’ (1993, p168). This statement rejects the hyper-rational detachment of post-structuralism in preference for the desire to explore subjective authenticity through the self-representational capacity of art.

Citing Butler’s argument that ‘the real is positioned both before and after its representation; and representation becomes a moment of the reproduction and consolidation of the real’ (1993, p165), Phelan recognises the Möbius strip paradox of the real as it is ‘read through representation, and representation [as] is read through the real’. Phelan’s discourse of visibility politics, particularly as it relates to art and to the other, resists the fixity of representation, instead inviting ‘negotiation with the limitations of the representational possibilities’ (1993, p165). In line with Phelan’s assertions, I would add that the liminal zone of the marginalised identity is frequently demarcated by invisible barriers to social inclusion, just as, simultaneously the isolation is reinforced by the excruciating visibility of exclusion.

Explicating a theory known as general semantics, philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski argues that human beings may only know the world through their own unique, inner abstractions. Korzybski theorises that the human being’s perception of reality is entirely shaped by the nervous system and the structure of language. His famous dictum ‘[t]he map is not the territory’ philosophically underscores both Butler’s and Phelan’s questioning of reality and representation, each author examining constitutive constituents of self in relation to its representational other (and in relation to each scholar’s own disciplinary perspective). My purpose in probing the dichotomous tensions that exist between the real and representational, between visible and invisible, in the gaps between literal and abstracted, is to interrogate and map critical intersections of selves that dwell ‘in-between’; between culturally finite definitions of assumed selfhood, between whole and broken, between able and unable, between capable and restricted, between ‘real’ and representational.

Reflecting on the establishing grounds of Phelan’s book Unmarked, especially from the perspective of a marginalised other (and as performer), recognition arises that performance may, in fact, be entirely; exclusively framed as personally altering and therapeutic action. Phelan’s rejection of ‘visibility’ as the panacea for marginalisation brings the realisation that each performer’s relationship to their own art is ‘the real’; irrespective of the audience and its applause. By exposing the social ‘wires’ of visibility politics, Phelan reveals autobiography as a potential sanctuary for artists who choose to express themselves through writing, whilst maintaining a screen of self around the performance of creative representation. In an essay titled Conditions and Limits of Autobiography[1] (1956 [1980]), Georges Gusdorf theoretically illuminates the autobiographical journey from reflective writing to reflexive analysis through evocative descriptions of the relationship of the interior realm to the exterior. He writes:

‘…every work of art is a projection from the interior realm into exterior space where in becoming incarnated it achieves consciousness of itself’ (in Olney, 1980).

Gusdorf’s assertions scaffold my own argument for the inclusion of a multiplicity of voices functioning together in scholarly writing. Accordingly, several performatively written entries occur throughout this essay, enabling expression of the interior realm. The performative entries offer subjective observations and creative reflections, and in so doing, reveal a frequently silenced voice of embodied knowing that infuses my wounded identity with instinctive strategies for survival. Juxtaposed with the ‘poetic’ is the reflexively critical voice that contextualises my inner realm of consciousness with the external realm of theoretical discourse.

ENTRY 1. People either desperately wanted to know what happened, or they completely and utterly didn’t. It didn’t touch me either way. Whatever happened to me was probably the same set of cuts that ever bled in anyone who stalked change. I just watched it all, fragmented by shafts of light and shades of human hues, in cracking heaps of agonies and vacant stares, buoyed by tides of tiny thoughts, until my feelings drifted in and out of places I’ll never find again. In the terrifying ocean of all my turbulent emotions, I hold tight to the memory of the day that I became a man, it was the day I ran away. Drifting into the blackness of memory, I travel back to the bush.

Syndicated throughout critical investigations of social representations of identity binaries; those of ‘normal’ and ‘other’, is the ‘cultural imaginary of disability’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2006, pix), which may broadly be contextualised as a tacit elimination of the liminal. This is the cultural silencing that performs social erasure; the averted gaze that denies normalised representations of people with disabilities in mainstream society. Many writers in the vanguard of Disability discourse challenge ‘distinctions between impairment and disability’ (Tremain, 2005, p9) as the ‘imposed’ or additional burdens that construct a restricted identity based on medical and social definitions that measure and assess disadvantage. The literature describes such distinctions as applied models which compound people’s struggles and prohibit social participation, thereby causing, or futher exacerbating social exclusion. Disability Studies speaks not only to those who identify, but to every human being: those experiencing permanent or temporary illness or disease, those in recovery from accidents, and all who face the inevitability of age-related problems. Disability is everybody’s business.

As a relatively new field of debate, the literature contains much that triggers consternation and acrimony, all of which fuels social change. Subsequently, the field remains ‘green’ with trepidation, volatility and the vulnerability of critical voices seeking to explore the personal and the political frontiers of disability, and disability representation. Kenny Fries in Couser writes ‘…after centuries of being stared at, today “writers with disabilities […] are staring back”’ (2002, p9) which speaks to a major divide in the discourses: the argument for and against the subjective voice of scholarship.

ENTRY 2. When I was a boy, headlights juddered across the wall of my bunker, the single brick and concrete box, illegally poked under the house that my mother, Kath rented for us in O’Connell Street. Much of the mortar had broken and crumbled away, inviting winter’s crack and city spiders into my underground haven. Sometimes I slept in there, scuttling my fingers across precious sheets of paper, in savage lines of desperation, scratching shards of charcoal in stiff and shaky lines that urgently sought a single stroke of inspired genius, a stroke of luck, the lightning stroke of different, better days. Kath was drinking again. Doors were hammering walls again, in floor-shuddering explosions that smashed deafeningly righteous signals to stay away or get burned. I was already crisp and hollow from the ferocious fire of my family’s drinking wars. My solar plexus was rigid with ancient pain as I listened to the cycle of clinking and prowling whenever her next new boyfriend stayed out all night again. She crackled at them all with primitive hunger for their destruction, and everything vulnerable about each one of their raw and primal struggles squirmed inside the trap she’d set, responding to her in fiercely violent, sexual play. I lost all sensation of safety again. My terror was never a fear of physical danger, not for me, it was an awful fear for her, for the horror of our consequences, of having to move out and move on again, to play the real estate game, be pariahs again, be desperate and back in hell, to have to breathe in the stench of charity again. Foster homes. Intimate with the mind-knife of the smashing bottles, I crept inside my languid, mounting panic, swallowing another assault, drifting on rivulets of ruin in short, shallow breaths and deep fear. I listened to another fight turned sweet, the kiss of remorse, the toss and tumble of hurts into a hungry heaving of pounding urgency. Systematically I closed my self and floated away. Awakening, I noticed me floating along Roma street, wandering,.. blank alongside parklands, never reaching past nor remembering future, just me on a straight path into the valley. I watched me heading north towards the freeway.

Lennard Davis (2002, p13) argues that ‘essentialists’ were ‘simple-minded’ enough to imagine (and propose) that ‘identity was tied to the body, written on the body’. Yet, in considering a post-structural alternative, he has to ask ‘If all identities are socially constructed or performative, is there a core identity there, is there a there?’ Davis’s fraught position potentially displaces the body from its own roots in felt sensations of comfort and discomfort, of ease and struggle.

Bill Hughes (in Tremain, 2005, p9) describes Foucault’s ‘declaration of the “death” of the meaning-giving subject’ as a rejection of ‘corporeality’ as a posthumanist perspective that denies the subjectivity of a phenomenological perspective that shows ‘disability oppression is embodied and lived’. He argues that Foucault’s repudiation of the ‘body-as-subject’ also renounces its power as ‘an agent of self- and social transformation’. Although Michel Foucault’s work holds profound sociological importance, and his legacy impinges upon many of the intellectual and philosophical questions that arise in my research, I am neither a student of Foucault’s work, nor is there scope to immerse in Foucauldian analysis here. It is, however relevant to my investigation to observe the vibrancy of Foucauldian thinking. Foucault’s personal desire for liberation from the body parallels his rejection of social contracts as “writer”, “philosopher” “historian” (Foucault cited in Martin, Gutman, Hutton, 1988, p9) which confirm his comments ‘I don’t feel it is necessary to know exactly what I am’. He rejects the solidification of any intellectual status as a philosophical ‘prophet’ which is expressed through his recognition of ‘our common work’.

Foucault’s acknowledgment of himself simply as ‘a teacher’ promotes the possibility of collective social change through the interactivity of shared intellectual and philosophical engagement, motivated by the possibility of expanded social capital. His assertion ‘[t]he main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning (Foucault cited in Martin, Gutman, Hutton, 1988, p9) demonstrates a driving force in Foucault’s considerations and constructions of self where freedom of identity forms the baseline of core values elicited by the intellectual pursuit of understanding human history and the development of societal organisation.

ENTRY 3. My teacher, Robyn Amos watched me with dread. It was an anxiety that smelled as if she half expected me to wait for her in some quiet, lonely place and leap out to slice her, nick her, touch her in a terrifying gesture of innocence that ate at her in that guilty flush of confusion about my eyes. She dreamed about my eyes and she didn’t know how to hide from my gaze. Robyn Amos just wanted to hold me and stroke me gently, with a light and easy touch, but she was so afraid. She was terrified of losing herself in all her confusion.

Foucault’s examinations of society’s ‘indirect constitution of ourselves through the exclusion of some others: criminals, mad people and so on’ (Foucault cited in Martin, Gutman, Hutton, 1988, p146) provide an understanding of the othering of the disabled as well as philosophical access to the history of self-reflection (according to ‘Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Nietzshe, Max Weber, Husserl, Heidegger, the Frankfurtschule’[2]). His work also provides the opportunity to trace the political ‘technologies of the self’ (1988) through the societal structures that Foucault was elaborating at the time of his death in 1984.

Hughes’s concern about Foucault’s rejection of ‘corporeality’ goes to the heart of an important issue in Disability literature. The right to self-represent is potentially overshadowed by the nihilism of some post-structural thinking, whereby philosophical dissections of critical disability issues may exclude the voice of embodied research in preference for what may only be imagined, debated, détourned, yet largely remains ‘unlived’. Disability artist and mentor Ross Barber comments that it is those offerings of ’embodied research’ that demonstrate ‘deep understanding and experience in a phenomenological sense’ (2013), lending lived wisdom and embodied authority to the disability debates. Barber’s comments are expanded by Edmund Husserl’s assertions that:

[t]he body is not an extended physical substance in contrast to a non-extended mind, but a lived “here” from which all “there’s” are “there”; a locus of distinctive sorts of sensations that can only be felt firsthand by the embodied experiencer concerned; and a coherent system of movement possibilities allowing us to experience every moment of our situated, practical-perceptual life as pointing to “more” than our current perspective affords. (cited in Behnke, 2011)

In The lived experience of disability (1995), S. Kay Toombs reflects starkly on the progressive nature of her illness, providing a phenomenology of illness and disability that contracts and expands in rapid variables of wellness and functional change. Toombs provides an inner space account of her outer space ability to manage mobility challenges and barriers to her interactivity, an adaptive reality. Spatial identity challenges have not only forced Toombs to continually revise the relationship of her physical self to the rest of the world, it has also caused an acute sense of environmental awareness of surface and stability as a consequence of the shifting sense boundaries of her being.

ENTRY 4. Kath wore blue whenever we visited the hearing clinic on Wednesdays. It was some kind of ritual that she performed for Doctor Dave, but he was so uncertain of the rules of the ritual, that he fumbled and revealed his masculine vulnerability, which was exactly what Kath aimed for every time. I knew he cared about me. He was much more comfortable whenever we were alone. He relaxed in the space, observimg me unobserved, but I was bored with the sameness of the ritual. He wore the good doctor’s attitude; the one that broadcast that he had no time, and that it totally stumped him as to why I had not yet changed. He sincerely looked for anything that might sway Kath’s grim acceptance of her troubling, disabled burden. My eyes were tired from watching the very same scene, my heart kept pumping recycled blood around and around, and my brain monitored the effects of their program upon my frozen, outcast, inner freak. I was bone-dead from watching Kath and Doctor Dave roll around my sky like little moons. Their identities sucked all light from some other source, there was nothing new, nothing clear and radiant there, I simply waited at the sameness of their handshake, their intrusive, pocketed phone calls and their stifled, nervous coughs, I recognised my boredom when it whined, and I saw so many well-trained tracks from toilet to bed. I needed to run until I burst my heart apart and blood ran fresh and vivid upon their inertia in a screaming jolt of electric juice to show them I too was human.

In thinking through Toombs’s challenges I begin to wonder anew, where does the ‘I’ stop and the reality of the ‘not I’ meet me and take over? How do ‘I’ perceive my own limits when weighed as identity constructs defined by the physical, intellectual and emotional boundaries of the congruent state of a ‘me’? Perhaps these human questions belong in the philosophical domains of surrealist, religious, spiritual and existential inquiry, and yet, many fundamental questions are explicitly part of the practical considerations of wondering how an alternative form of being fits into the landscape, and where it no longer inhabits the realm of spatial, social ‘usualities’.

ENTRY 5. Kath worked in an office and I knew that her boss, Uncle Terry Bartlett, was dying. I heard Kath explaining to her sister Didi, that the paramedics had told her to say goodbye right before he’d left the office on a stretcher. I knew for certain when I waited a very long time at the bus stop. It was dark by the time Aunty Didi came to find me. She told me that Kath was still at the hospital because her boss, Uncle Terry Bartlett had just died. I knew, right then, that I was going back into foster care again. It didn’t matter anymore, because I couldn’t survive another stretch of Kath being out of work, her drinking, fighting, spiralling back down into the abyss.

Kath drove along Hale Street in our grinding blue car, instructing me how to behave at Didi’s place while she went to Uncle Terry Bartlett’s funeral. I stared at the terrifying sameness of the houses rushing by.

The disciplinary thrust of phenomenological approaches to understanding disability experiences is captured in James I. Charlton’s book Nothing About Us Without Us (2000). Described as the ‘defining document in the literature of disability culture’ (McKee, Disability Culture, 2003) it marks the move towards what has been called ‘distinct disability culture’ (Couser, 2002, p110). Barbara McKee asserts that disability is a cultural ‘product’ in her argument that:

[t]he culture always existed, but the acknowledgement of it did not. To determine what is disability culture, one must understand the definition of the word culture: cul·ture (kùl¹cher) noun: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. (Disability Culture, 2013)

I argue that no such single ‘disability culture’ truly exists: we are individuals experiencing uniquely determined lives. We merely inhabit socially constructed and medically organised locations of disability, categorised by the broader culture’s evaluative assessments of impairments, needs and capacities. In the end, I understand that my own phenomenological experiences with mechanical challenges have situated disability ‘outside‘ me, rather than being intrinsic to my identity. Disability is the external, social framing of my difference as a deficiency. This dislocating dichotomy replaces the question ‘where am I?’, with the questions ‘where is disability and is it ever mine?’ These considerations tap straight into the arterial discourses of Disability Studies, leading deeper into schools of archaic inquiry such as eugenics (Barnes, Baynton, Wilson & Wheatley, 1997, and Mitchell & Snyder, 2006), assimilation, (Bradfield, 2003), asylums, incarcerations, interventions and the institutional control of people determined as ‘other’ (Deutsh, Gilman, Poore & Scholnick, 2002, Berube in Davis, 2006 and Foucault, 1960–1984).

ENTRY 6. Kath rearranged my hair at the front door as she negotiated the terms of my special needs and philosophical requirements until I was delivered into the gloom of Aunty Didi’s cave; a dark and untidy world of moss-covered sticks and grandfather’s beard and rocks and piccabeen and deer skin scraps and hand-sewn bags with beads and feathers and felt lay strewn around, where musical instruments tripped over the stairs and unfinished canvases with eerie images peered across the room in stark gazes, screeching at the dishes and the bills piled up and the damp washing that was strewn around to dry on the backs of chairs. I shivered at the overload.

Frantic, mournful warnings rippled out from the currawongs. They pierced my skin with their stinging, blistering cries as we scuffed along the crumbling concrete path, on and on and on, severed from our safeties as we slipped into the wet blanket of the dank and ominous forest. My ears rumbled with the scraping, droning ripples of the mud and ancient history, and shifting light flickered in my mind, blinding me, stopping me from stepping along the path.

Everything rushed in to swallow my breath and I hated Didi, hated her from inside the hollow coldness of my imagined revenge. I wanted her to know this awkwardness, to be dangled in an etheric void of unreasonable pressure and to fall, just as I was falling.

Eugenics, a word coined by British scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883 (Aubert-Marson D, 2009), is an influential model of social engineering which appears entrenched in the collective (un)consciousness of humanity bound to an enduring and destructive response to wounded identity; rejecting, separating, excluding and even exhibiting others. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder (2006), assert that eugenics contains the very roots of genocide and argue that disability enquiry continues as ‘a primary source of disabled people’s oppression today’ (p28). A macabre legacy of eugenics has imprinted popular culture, cultivating an enduring fascination with, and mass consumption of grotesque forms of mutilation, horror and many distressing forms of otherness in fiction, film and television.

ENTRY 7. I never knew that an entire city of dread was crammed down so deep inside me, not until I inched away from the fractured chain of Didi’s slipshod control. How could she understand Kath’s expectations or methods of governance? Kath’s tungsten claw of menace was fully loaded and pressing upon the pulsing, vulnerable arteries of my urgent desperation. A turbulent, swirling metropolis unfurled, there in the big garden that Didi claimed as her own amazing forest. I watched it drift down on me in a raw and powerful silence, and the dominance of the trees couldn’t help but transform my grief into an open chasm of need. I was filled with fever for the very changes that the trees wrought in me.

Frogs and crickets and owls and small parrots were chirping, warbling, popping, hooting, cackling, laughing and crying as their calls faded into their own inexorable death. I didn’t need to hear the stifled sorrow-songs of others, I was filled with my own, but the sounds simply travelled into me, gliding eerily through the shimmering shapes of the landscape, carrying themselves high on swirling ground-vapours that tossed me into a vanishing green lake that spilled across all of our unfathomably complex lives, enveloping me in a cool and distant breeze that blew itself far out over the canopy, on and on into the shelter of wild and beautiful dangers, far from the urban wasteland that severed me anonymously and invisibly and totally.

I waited until her fully emptied mind was utterly preoccupied with plastic telephone calls to flimsy people, calling them from inside her forest, and I just walked away.

I followed the scent.

Thomas Couser writes of ‘left and right’ political factions (2002, p110) within the Humanities which deem Disability Studies as a legitimate (the left) or an unacceptable (the right) branch of academic research. These oppositional factions are both endorsed and disavowed by disability activists who do not consider disability autobiography as a politically valid criteria for research. In contrast, and through the use of a post-structural feminist framework, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson advocates greater flexibility in thinking about representations of people with disability. She invites a naming and claiming of feminist discussion and Disability Studies as identity studies. She writes ‘…even though Disability Studies is now flourishing in disciplines such as history, literature, religion, theatre and philosophy in precisely the same way feminist studies did twenty-five years ago, many of its practitioners do not recognize that Disability Studies is part of this larger undertaking that can be called identity studies(2002, p2). Garland-Thomson’s scholarly groundwork in challenging, destabilising and restabilising definitions of feminist studies and Disability Studies as identity studies offers a promising understanding of the social construction of disability. In concert with this redefining approach, Simi Linton writes about how meanings are generated in discourses of Disability Studies. Linton’s work in Claiming Disability (1998) demystifies many of the labels embedded in the ontologies of disability. This enables better engagement with complex concepts inherent in Disability Studies through the open, pragmatic tone and personal frame of reference infusing ‘the critical’ with references to so much real life application. There is, in Linton’s work, a bringing together of the outer domain (the structural domain of discourse and meanings) without abandoning the inner self. Demonstrating how her understandings are shaped by phenomenological experience, Linton writes:

‘Disabled people are everywhere these days – on the bus, on supermarket checkout lines, in the voting booth and at the movies. We have become a more visible presence in the social landscape, and a more persistent and unsettling element in political and cultural arenas. As part of that “we”, I have been a participant in this collective coming out over the past 35 years of my life’. (Simi, 2013)

Linton’s declaration of the act of ‘coming out’ breaks away from the stigma of shame that shrouds the blurred borders that still exist between eugenics and disability. Linton’s activism stridently unlocks shame from identity, and in so doing, ontologically anchors Erving Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma as ‘the process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity’ (Goffman in Nettleton, 2006, p95). Inspiringly, and with direct candour, Linton urges the depathologising of stigma and the shame of disability in preference for social equity, fostering open, inclusive discussions with, and about people experiencing variously abled bodies (1998). She celebrates creative discourses that engage with disability:

‘[t]here is an emerging cadre of dancers, actors, writers, performance artists, and painters who are actively engaging with both the fact and idea of disability. The most exciting work explores what disability provides the artist, rather than what feats someone can perform despite disability. When disabled artists use their unique bodies and voices, something innovative happens’.  (Simi, 2013)

Linton’s direct approach to social equality is commonly undermined by a prevailing attitude within many disability arts organisations[3] whose policies condescendingly acknowledge creative talent only through the lens of disability. The provision of ‘big crayons’ conveys a sub-text of commiseration and other exclusionary perpetuations. The ‘worthy’ paradigm of disability community support organisations must evolve in order to generate a broader understanding of the extraordinary strategic skills and intellectual sophistication of, say, the wheelchair user who daily navigates hostile environments for accessible routes and pathways that might begrudgingly offer thin wheels an entry point to ordinary life.

ENTRY 8. The moment I saw the blue man, I recognised him straightaway. I saw his peace, and I could also see that it was only temporary… just a makeshift, tiny piece of peace. He was painting with two blue hands onto a piece of cloth and there were pictures of animals and… other things, leaning up and all around the inside of his own wild world, safe in the roots of a hidden tree, a hiding tree. It glittered with the fallen treasures he had gathered and painted and dreamed. When Blue saw me, he easily saw that we had the very same problem. He was only a child inside a man’s body and I was old, old crow. Neither of us knew how to take care of all the fidgety children that were hiding inside our skins, so we just let them all out to play inside the beautiful blue bower, it was our fortress against the screeching pain outside.

In their essay Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins, Sedgwick and Frank challenge ‘assumptive’ epistomological models of critical theory, rejecting the dualism of cultural depictions of ‘subjectivation, self-fashioning, objectification, and Othering; to the gaze; to the core of selfhood whether considered as a developmental telos or as a dangerous illusion requiring vigilant deconstruction’ (1995). In critical discussion about the cultures of shame and guilt, Stanford psychology scholars, Ying Wong and Jeanne Tsai (2007, p210) quote Tomkins, Sedgwick and Frank to ‘describe shame as “the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation… [it] is felt as an inner torment, a sickness of the soul”’.

The nature of shame bears significant social and cultural significance in many diverse fields of cultural inquiry[4]; it is, (as well as the burden of guilt), reflective of hegemonic institutions of social control applied through monolithically oppressive structures as religion, government, politics, finance, medicine, psychiatry, psychology and law. The onus of shame is borne by those entrapped by patriarchally dominated conditions aimed at shaming (controlling) the poor, the ill, the uneducated, the vulnerable, the queer, the addicted, the dependent, the mad and every shameful other. Probyn relates Deleuze’s discussion of shame as the ‘splitting off from the body’, Deleuze describing a process whereby “the mind begins by coldly and curiously regarding what the body does, it is first of all a witness: then it is affected, it becomes an impassioned witness, that is, it experiences for itself affects that are not simply effects of the body, but veritable critical entities that hover over the body and judge it” (cited in Probyn, 2010, p80).

Autobiography, in all various forms of creative expression, (the self-writing of identity through articulations of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic vocabularies, as well as combined voicings and beyond), facilitates the decompression of shame, dissolving the stain of deeply entrenched stigmas of disability. Autobiography, as art, as creative expression, is a conceptual alternative for identity to focus on acknowledging, drawing out and encouraging what is inherently present and healthy. This is particularly enabling for marginalised individuals and communities. The artist recognises the creative challenges at the intersections of self and other, and, by applying internal strategies for alternatives, increases capacity by experimenting, failing, reapplying, succeeding and arriving at new solutions, technologies and efficiencies.

Recognising otherness as intrinsically ‘whole’, the artist extrapolates selfhood and applies the functional intelligence of the observer within; the curious ingenuity of the inner witness that presides over the totality of selves, delineating and delegating multiplicities, (per)forming a creative community of selfhood. Creatively functioning as the translator between ‘the real’ and the representation, art speaks to the interior realm of exterior spaces, to fractured selves of an observer self, to performers of performances and audiences, to the performance of the performative, to individuals of communities, to the liminal of the centrality.

ENTRY 9. I wanted to give him everything that he could never have, everything I could never share, not when everyone imagined so much ugliness when they looked at me. Instead, the Blue man shared his space so I could touch the free and living things that grew in the ground, time to smell the colours and the silence in which he only smiled and drove me gently to the death of my own suffering, pushed me to the very end of my boyhood, killed me in the culling of the heavy white handprints that Kath had marked upon me as shackles of my freedom and the free ways of all things.

Inside my fragile, white shell I was powerful owl, long before I could dream. Blue man took control of the wind and turned my mind into a light that hummed upon the deep, dark, cavernous lines of all his own lost and shivering boys, such hungry boys trapped in the dens of all deception, captives in the haunted well of horrors and whippings and whiteness, prisoners in the holding tanks for all black brothers of the primal pain. I freely went in there with him because he promised me safe passage in all the darkness, he offered me company inside my silence and he gave me warmth from inside his scars.

We shared the same hurts anyway, and we both knew.

We made a new knowing and it had one colour. It was always Blue.

Blue man yearned to find the lost childhoods of all his fathers. He drew it for me on the tree root walls of his bower, he wrote himself on all his trees. He painted his lives in shapes and lines, and I would have followed him into hell. Blue sketched the faces of his mob on the trees. There was no clean, white paper in our broken homes. White paper… with new white names signing off a new stealing, a fresh taking, far away from all our bad fathers, salvaged from our mad, wounded, bleeding, silent, battered, matted, scarred, hard-living and dead-drunk mothers. When Blue first showed me the marks he used to draw his little brothers, I saw two more, broken toys. Big, chucked-away boys, smacked down by fisted hurts, categorically listed on sheets of clean, white paper.

Blue Man marked me with the blue of his hands and with the blue of all his mob. He gave me so many pictures, that together, we just kept drawing, sketching, painting the hurts of all our disconnections, until I saw that we were, everyone of us, in so many layered pieces. We’d just got caught, wavering in the strokes and lines, like immaterial mists, unable to withstand the grinding down of all our collected sorrows.

We heard my women calling, my mother and her sister, but they were only calling out for the old me, the dead me, calling for the wind to stir up, and calling for our fortress to fall. Not once did they call out for him. Blue man. Newly scarred men, we stood, marked as blue mob, standing in the air and seeing into the future and the futile greyness of all our old, ripped dreams.

My white women shrieked and howled from the edges of the bower, never able to understand why they could not enter our blue fortress. We’d built its walls with the fading, invisible, magic light of men. Our fortress was a sacred place of initiation.

“You’ll be ‘right now.” he spoke.

Wrapping him in my only embrace, I printed my new, blue hands upon the back of him, and then I walked away.


  • Aubert-Marsden, Dominique, 2009 Sir Francis Galton: The Father of Eugenics Med Sci (Paris) 10.1051/medsci/2009256-7641, accessed Jan 2012, <;
  • Austin, John Langshaw, 1962 How to Do Things With Words Harvard University Press, Massachusetts
  • Behnke, Elizabeth, 2011 Husserl’s Phenomenology of Embodiment. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed May 2013, <>
  • Bhabha, Homi K., 1994 The Location of Culture, Routledge, NY
  • Butler, Judith, 1988 Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531
  • ___________1990 Gender Trouble, Feminism and The Subversion of Identity Routledge, NY
  • ___________2005 Giving An Account of Oneself Fordham University Press, NY
  • Charlton, James I., 2000 Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment University of Cal. Press
  • Couser, G. Thomas, 2009 Signifying Bodies:Disability Narrative and Disability Studiesedu, accessed February, 2012 <;
  • Davis, Lennard, 2002 Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism and Other Difficult Positions New York University Press, New York & London
  • Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix, 1987, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Garland-Thomson, Rosemary, 2006 Integrating disability, transforming feminist theory In L. J. Davis (Ed.), NWSA Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3, Feminist Disability Studies pp. 1-32 The Johns Hopkins University Press
  • ___________1997 Extraordinary Bodies Columbia University Press, NY
  • Goffman, Erving, 1963 Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity Simon & Schuster, NY
  • Gusdorf, George, 1956 Conditions and Limits of Autobiography translated by James Olney, 1980 in Autobiography Essays Theoretical and Critical Princeton University Press, New Jersey
  • Kodish, Bruce I., Korzybski: A Biography Institute of General Semantics accessed April 2014 < >
  • Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve, & Frank, Adam, 2003 Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity Duke University Press, North Carolina
  • Linton, Simi, 2006 My Body Politic: A Memoir University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
  • ___________1998 Claiming disability: knowledge and identity New York University Press
  • ___________2013 Disability Culture Watch accessed March 2013 <; and <;
  • Martin, Luther H., Gutman, Huck, & Hutton, Patrick H., 1988 Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault University of Massachusetts Press
  • McKee, Barbara J., 2003 Disability Culture accessed May 2013 <;
  • Mitchell, David, & Snyder, Sharon, 2000 Narrative Prosthesis: Disabilities and the Dependencies of Discourse University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
  • ___________2006 Cultural Locations of Disabilty University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  • Morris, Marla, 2004 Review Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 263-266
  • Nathanson, Donald L., 1992 Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self W. Norton, New York
  • _____________1997 From Empathy to Community The Silvan S. Tomkins Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Posted 1998-03-15 (Reprinted from The Annual of Psychoanalysis, Volume 25, edited by Jerome A. Winer for the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. by the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.)
  • Phelan, Peggy, 1993, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance Routledge, NY
  • Poovey, Mary, 2000 Creative Criticism: Adaptation, Performative Writing, and the Problem of Objectivity Narrative, Vol. 8, No. 2, Narrative and Performance, pp. 109-133 Ohio State University Press
  • Probyn, Elspeth, 1996 Outside Belongings Routledge, NY
  • Snyder, Sharon L, Brueggemann, Brenda Jo, & Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, 2002 Disability Studies, Enabling the Humanities Modern Language Association of America, NY
  • Tomkins, Sylvan, 1962 & 1963 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness First Edition. Springer Publishing Company, NY
  • Toombs, S. Kay, 1995 The Lived Experience of Disability Human Studies, Vol 18, No 1, Intersubjectivity as a Practical Matter and a Problematic Achievement pp 9–23 Springer
  • Tremain, Shelley, 2005, Foucault and the Government of Disability University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
  • Wong, Y., and Tsai, J.L., 2007 Cultural models of shame and guilt Chapter in J. Tracy, R. Robins & J.


[1] The original essay, written in French, is translated into English and published by James Olney, 1980.

[2] The Frankfurtschule refers to an elite group of German intellectuals (scientists and philosophers) who established the Institute for Social Research in 1924. The members are recognised for their intellectual engagement with the works of (among others) Freud, Weber and Marx, and their philosophical and sociological reflections came to be known as critical theory.

[3] There is very little or no representation of people with disabilities in employment or on the management committees and boards of directors governing disability arts organisations in Australia.

[4] Atherton J S (2011) Doceo; Shame-Culture and Guilt-Culture [On-line: UK] retrieved 28 April 2013 from and Wong Y and Tsai J, 2007, Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt (, retrieved 29th April 2013).