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Fantasies of Ability

Published onNov 24, 2020
Fantasies of Ability
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Picture Tony Stark, American boy-genius tech entrepreneur, kidnapped by terrorists, wounded in the chest – but who invents for himself an invincible power-suit of armor. He becomes, in what is now a delightfully anachronistic act of naming, Iron Man. His disability is that he has no heart, but no matter, tech and capital come to the rescue, and he goes on to save the world from evil, and all that.

This able-bodied fantasy of invincibility disavows death and sickness as the underlying conditions of existence. Able-bodied subjects can react with fear and disgust in response to disabled people who remind them of the inevitability of disablement and death; contact with disability is a momentary rupture of the psychic barrier that shields the able-bodied subject from knowledge of its corporeal vulnerability. Able-bodied people manage their own precarity by death denialism.

In the enriched zones, such death denialism is made possible in part because sickness and death are not equally distributed. The body is an index of social inequality. Global supply chains and domestic sites of precaritization rely on the immiseration of disposable bodies: premature death from exposure to toxins, overwork, injury, and strained mental health. Workers who perform labor in the most dangerous parts of the supply chain are vulnerable to sudden and spectacular forms of injury.

Slow death, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s term, accrues to subjects who absorb a constant stream of blows that, while they may at first appear imperceptible, accumulate over time.1 In a similar way, Rob Nixon has used “slow violence” to describe the gradual and often invisible toll of environmental crisis on the poor.2 For a farm worker, this can be the delayed onset of cancer caused by prolonged exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready herbicide, or for a black woman who exists under the conditions of atmospheric anti-blackness, it might be manifest in a depressive episode caused by chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels.3

From Each Beyond their Abilities; To Each According to their Precarity

Bodies are hierarchically ranked by their laboring capacities. The disdain towards disabled people reveals the extent to which the category of the human is defined by the ability to perform waged labor. Disabled people are scorned as work-shirkers, as if one’s capacity to work were the only thing that makes one worthy. As historian Sarah Rose has shown, the rise of industrial capital in the United States was coextensive with the rise of “vocational rehabilitation,” reframing disabled subjects as “idle” leeches and therefore necessitating their mandatory re-entry into work.4 Yet it is that industrial capital itself that legitimizes disposability, operations within which accumulation begets dispossession, extraction begets depletion, and bodies are treated as instruments of productivity. Precarity leads to premature death.

We must not accept the uneven distribution of bodily and psychic harm against precarious people. How do we acknowledge the violence that extraction does to our bodies? How do we avow and embrace what Saidiya Hartman calls waywardness, the refusal to function, and the beauty of brokenness without romanticizing the system that does the breaking?5 From “wages for bed rest” to crip dance parties, we defend our right to aberration, to our belief in the vibrancy of what veers but is never vanquished.

Able-Bodiedness is More Than a Condition

Able-bodiedness is a critical subject position against which disability politics needs to organize. As digital capitalism accelerates, however, we are called to consider “able-bodiedness” otherwise. How do we celebrate disabled bodies, while fighting the uneven distribution of bodily and psychic harm? This question follows from the work of scholars working in what Jina B. Kim has coined “crip of color critique.” Troping on Rod Ferguson’s call for a “queer of color critique,” a corrective to queer theory that centers material inequities that produce sexual and gendered abjection at the same time as it celebrates non-hegemonic behaviors, Kim calls for a disability politics that can grapple with both the experiences of disabled subjects and combat structural systems of disablement. Today, disability politics is a (still primarily white) movement of identitarian self-actualization, but it is also a radical reordering of what types of bodies signify as human. The potential and the pitfalls lie hand-in-hand; making death and mutilation seem humane is an ethical risk, as is failing to make human the subjects who suffer at the hands of war, misery, torture.

Indeed, we don’t need to look to Silicon Valley for evidence of racist disablement produced by capital; we can look to silicon itself. Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry in The Book of the Dead exposes the “acceptable” risk borne by workers in extractive industries, the slow deaths by silicosis – tiny particles of silica in the lungs that scar the lungs from the inside out.6 The Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster, one of the worst and least-known industrial catastrophes, occurred slowly, between 1930 and 1935, but led to rapid death for miners who contracted silicosis; most survived less than a year. A commemorative plaque in West Virginia reads: “Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed the toll at 476 for 1930–35. Tragedy brought recognition of acute silicosis as occupational lung disease and compensation legislation to protect workers.”7

And yet, while equally apt to cause bodily harm, today’s extractive disablements take place in a different economic and technological world. Consider that the emergence of the twentieth-century welfare state in the United States deemed certain types of presumably infirm bodies worthy of material support in the form of Social Security Insurance, Aid for Families with Dependent Children, and state aid for people with various forms of blindness.8 While these forms of state benefits reified gendered logics, building on a long tradition of aid for “war widows,” and the nation’s intellectual hubs simultaneously promoted eugenic and racist logics that sought to eliminate “feeble-mindedness” and other disabilities altogether, the idea that some persons should be supported without the expectation of continuous work does signify a desire to, at least on the margins, provide care to some subjects. In other words, the state desired to prevent the elderly and some with disabilities from simply dying from starvation and exposure. Now, right-wing and center-left states are shrinking these types of programs at the same moment as digital technology promises to make more jobs “flexible” and “adaptive.” This is not disability liberation.

To be clear, the rise of prosthetic technology assists in individual mobility and entry into the social for many people with disabilities – we are not against prosthesis. Nor are we against medical intervention per se. Indeed, many of us ourselves are beneficiaries of medical technologies that allow us to live in the world, including access to gender transition technologies that circulate via the same global supply chains that we critique here.9 (Another mark against a politics of purity: in our bodies themselves live exogenously produced chemical substances, hormones, that some might consider toxins.)

What we do note, however, is the normalization of the white two-income household, the emergence of work programs for people with disabilities, “welfare to work” frameworks from the 1990s, state experiments with adding (as of this writing, questionably legal) work requirements to Medicaid, which taken in aggregate reveal a turning away from the idea that some bodies are not necessarily mandated as laboring bodies.10 The risk of celebrating digital technology as a sort of universal prosthesis, a technology that allows people with disabilities (especially mobility and communication disabilities) to participate in forms of adaptive labor, is that it carries with it the expectation that all people should thus be willing and able to work to survive.

If adaptive technology is co-opted as means to expand the labor market, just as twentieth-century feminist claims of labor discrimination and patriarchal domesticity have not resulted in a stable two-income family but rather in the increased outsourcing of childcare labor and the expectation that only dual-wage units can expect to survive, this is not disability liberation or accessibility of any kind.11 Instead, it is simply a reification of an able-bodied fantasy: that all of our bodies have indefinite labor capacity, even if that capability might appear in different forms.

As state support for sick, aged, disabled, pregnant, care-working, etc. bodies dwindles, its expectation that bodies formerly excluded from the category of “worker” become workers increases. We resist the digital serving as the fantasy object that enables such an expectation. If technological prosthesis provides access to desired futures for people across bodily and mental difference, let it be a future of accessible play, not merely accessible work.

Precarity is a Threat Against the Right to Live – It Cannot Be Solved by the Right to Work

Precarity not only wears away at the body but also at the soul.12 Precarity causes trauma and is caused by it. Think of the emotional labor required to make others happy, soothing their moods, anticipating their needs.13 We find versions of this emotional labor in a range of jobs from client work to teaching to sex work. Precarity pushes workers into forms of labor that levy additional taxes on already overworked psyches.

How is disablement produced through global supply chains? Who is sacrificed? Digital economies contribute to the uncompensated breakdown of the mind and body. The precarious laborers of the digital sit at screens and filter violent or sexually graphic content, mine digital gold, operate tech support, mine literal cobalt/rare metals, assemble chips and screens, enter data, recycle or dispose of digital waste products, clean buildings in Silicon Valley, drive app-based rideshare cars, transcribe walls of text, write code, edit code, write fanfiction, produce videos, tweet, load computer chips on container ships, buy and sell stock. Some of these jobs are physically demanding, from mining to sitting hunched over at a desk. Others are psychically demanding, even traumatizing.

The risks of labor, its likeliness to result in disability, sickness, trauma, stress, death, are organized by race, gender, and other categories that come pre-loaded with precarity. But by placing both disability and able-bodied fantasies of endless embodiment in conversation with digital precarity, we join with disability scholars of color who ask critical questions about the production of disability under capital and the assignment of the status “disabled” to those who do not work according to capital’s plan.

This move is in direct rebuttal to the techno-optimist fantasy in which digital technology becomes a universal prosthetic.14

The fantasy of the robotic or digitally enhanced body appears throughout strands of popular culture, from Avatar to Detective Pikachu.15 The sustaining trope is that people with mobility or sensory impairments will obviously benefit from digital technologies such as virtual reality that allow them to “escape” their “confinement” to wheelchairs and other real-life mobility aids. While prosthetic technologies are not, in themselves, tools of eradication, the persistent fantasy that “tech” is what can “cure” disability is an eliminationist one.16 Such a fantasy perpetuates the disgust and dismissal of disabled subjects, while also attempting to recruit them as future workers.

If digital world-making includes an ableist fantasy of “transcending” the body at its heart, yet perpetuates disablement through its labor practices, how might subjects intervene? The digital doesn’t transcend the body; on the contrary, it requires ever more narrow performances of it. Instagram is now a “social factory” and normative physical beauty is its stock in trade.17 In this marketplace, even acts of seeming resistance are fraught; reactions to popular TikTok dance performances by disabled people are divided between vocal support and catcalls. Though digital technologies were celebrated as providing new kinds of labor to accommodate disabled bodies, the rise of image-oriented platforms that celebrate and necessitate perfect bodies undermines this possibility.

Or better yet: how do marginalized people bend the digital networks designed for the circulation and organization of wealth and work to their own uses, to scaffold communal care in the face of bodymind breakdown and precarity? How do they tap into the grid and steal a little electricity for their own?

After the Social Safety Net, We Must Create Social Safety Networks

Digital care is a life-sustaining practice that uses digital technologies to create covens of care across geographic space. These might be thought of as social safety networks, communities that replace inadequate or cruel so-called “safety nets.”18 State-run “safety nets” are traps for people with disabilities, who, if they make too much money or get married, are balanced precariously between “not poor enough” and “too poor to live” and are kicked off benefits.

Some might valorize digital social safety networks as evidence of a techno-libertarian promise – that individuals, left alone with a tool, can self-govern and therefore eliminate the need for redistributive or revolutionary economic policies. We instead view these formations as sites of intervention into capital accumulation and individualism that happen to organize in whatever environments, including digital ones, marginalized people find themselves in. Interdependence, the radical disability concept of mutual life, is the guiding framework behind these practices.

Care is care because it remedies precarity. Networks of digitally organized money transfer such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter, crowdfunding vehicles like Patreon, and subscription sex-work services like OnlyFans are used to raise rent money, medical expenses, and other necessary survival funds within marginalized life-worlds. These are mechanisms through which marginalized people literally transfer funds from one precarious individual or group to another.

However, money transfer systems don’t add to the sum total of resources held by these people; instead they shift energy to where it is needed at the time. Like the internet, a network designed to withstand damage and censorship, social safety networks are self-healing, but they can only distribute the same amount that has been put into them. Moreover, most of these transactions are “taxed” by the corporations that own these financial services. They are able to extract a rent from the covens of care that form to heal precarity itself.

Social safety networks are glitches, not integral features, of capitalist digital worlds.


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