Examined Life - Judith Butler & Sunaura Taylor
July 5, 2013 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor went for a walk and engaged in a terrific conversation about disability as not merely some physical status but largely a social status, and that is also true for so called "able-bodied" persons. (14:23)

Sunaura Taylor is a painter and disability rights activist who has been featured on NPR

Judith Butler is an American post-structuralist philosopher, who has contributed to the fields of feminist philosophy, queer theory, political philosophy, and ethics and has been featured on Metafilter previously and previouslier.
posted by Blasdelb (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
This is from the film Examined Life which I saw when it came out in the theatres.

If you know San Francisco's Mission district, the scenery in this clip should be very familiar.
posted by vacapinta at 8:31 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Pretty interesting to consider what those who are disabled and those who aren't. When one can't do relatively simple tasks that most others can't, then everything can became a challenge and fight just to feel and act like a human being.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:50 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Love work that looks at connections among disability and sex and queerness.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:56 AM on July 5, 2013

That was thought provoking. It brings to mind the question of "who gets to decide." The difference between embodiment and impediment is striking. Often, the impediment comes from a social construct that only considers particular presentations of a thing. Whether that thing is an ability or a sexuality or an appearance.

Some of the things I think about are who gets to decide when a person is sick or unwell? Does the patient decide that? Does the doctor decide that? Does some intermediary decide that? Well, here in America we have all of those deciders, and there is no real agreement. (patients delay care, "downplay" or "overstate" their signs and symptoms, doctors don't always take complaints seriously, insurance companies decide that something is a pre-existing condition or not worthy of being investigated currently.)

Who decides about sexuality? Social science has moved toward a label "men who have sex with men" in favor of "gay men" because many men who engage in sexual behavior with other men do not identify as gay. For lots of reasons! Who decides what "having sex" is? Who decides when a transperson discloses their status to a person they are dating? Who decides what constitutes a date or dating?

I guess what I'm saying is I think about all of these things a lot, without having read any queer philosophy, so now I'm going to go to the library and see if they have any Judith Butler on the shelves. I hope they do.
posted by bilabial at 9:40 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a shame not all of that movie is this good. Some of the conversations border on cringe, one is pretty much pure cringe.
posted by hank_14 at 10:16 AM on July 5, 2013

Pure cringe in what way?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:21 AM on July 5, 2013

Agreed with hank_14. There are some segments in the Examined Life movie which border on being pure nonsense. Not all of them are as good as this Judith Butler segment. The Cornel West segment, though, is really fun.
posted by vacapinta at 10:54 AM on July 5, 2013

>Often, the impediment comes from a social construct that only considers particular presentations of a thing.

True. So many of these constructs are connected with surface appearances--states or conditions of the body that can be read by the eye, or are evocative of horror, shame or pity when they are seen by the eye. The role of the eye in determining disability and reactions thereto is prominent.

This makes me think about the problems experienced by people whose disability isn't visible, because it involves the limitations of a body under the duress of chronic pain. These people are restricted from many--or, in extreme cases, all--of the activities and movements of the able-bodied. In some instances, they're bedridden for long parts of the day. Yet chronic pain is often given short shrift, because it's invisible to others. Indeed, it's even "invisible" to the medical machines and devices that we use to extend our eyes into realms that are inaccessible to them. It's a condition that often escapes the most probing MRIs, that can't be "seen" by X-rays or any other medical technology.

An individual with chronic pain, when glanced at and read by the eye, may seem perfectly able-bodied and "normal," or healthy, even. We might not even give him or her a second look. But inside, there's a condition that is bringing about extreme physical limitations which we'll never be able to "see." Not to mention psychological duress, and yes, pain.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:55 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Žižek is always pure cringe. That's why we love him!
posted by Dr. Send at 1:32 PM on July 5, 2013

I always marvel at Zizek's ability to say something completely idiotic but with the certainty and charm of someone who has somehow seen behind the veil and gained revolutionary insight as a result. Dr. Send has the sentiment right - he's all too often heavy cringe, but it's kind of lovable.

For me the biggest disappointment was the interview with Ronell, whose work I regard very highly. The Telephone Book is almost manic with insight and is as brilliant in form as it is rich in content. But that interview left me embarrassed - it's the pure cringe moment for me.
posted by hank_14 at 1:50 PM on July 5, 2013

The things Judith Butler says here don't strike me as being particularly enlightening. She's not firmly in philosophy, but is more on the side of literary criticism (and is, in fact, in a comp lit and rhetoric department). Honestly, I'd say that this is more like casually shooting the breeze about disability without seriously trying to say anything clear and true about it.

I mean, take the bit about people helping (or not) someone who is disabled get a cup of coffee. JB tries to turn it into some kind of crucial test for views about whether we are more individualistic or less so. In fact, people often just don't know what to do in such cases--e.g. don't know whether or not help is wanted, nor how to give it. If a disabled person (or anyone...) obviously needs help (e.g. asks for it), most people will lend a hand...

It's always possible to over-theorize things, and to spin out vaporous theories about relatively concrete, relatively practical, problems--problems that, however vexing, aren't really all that theoretical. (See, e.g., Zizek on trash from the same movie...) I really don't think this is a good model for doing philosophy...nor for thinking seriously about things in general.

This comment is offered merely as friendly input from someone with different philosophical inclinations...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:39 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just showed this film to my Intro to Philosophy class last week! This is my favorite segment, by far, though I do appreciate Peter Singer not being a strident monster and I always appreciate seeing Nussbaum lay down some reality (though she apparently wasn't too impressed with the result, for the same reasons examined by a couple of people above--it doesn't represent philosophers-in-the-tradition-of-Socrates as much as people-theorizing-about-stuff).

I'm not sure I agree that it's not "pure" or "proper" philosophy, since they really do dig around in, for example, what the term "going for a walk" means, or what "justice" can look like from different perspectives, according to social location or background. The whole film is a pretty good overview on the key topics in philosophy while also being a text that should be critically evaluated (is claiming that "life is movement" applicable to living well? Is it applicable to living the "examined life"?) As an introduction to plural epistemologies, rather than pure conventional 101 stuff, I think it's pretty well done. I don't want my students to walk away from an Intro class thinking about philosophy as this unassailable discipline of names, dates and hyper-rigourous argumentation that they barely followed. I want them, and everyone who will be exposed at the 101 level and no farther, to walk away with a critical eye to the terms and concepts they apply when they make an assumption or claim about other people or ways of living.

Maybe I'm just too much of a feminist ethicist at heart, but especially this clip did a great job of skimming around the surface of what asking those types of questions looks like without becoming Epistemology of Disability 400.
posted by zinful at 6:08 PM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

If a disabled person (or anyone...) obviously needs help (e.g. asks for it), most people will lend a hand...

This is not the experience that is reported by people I know who are actually disabled.
posted by bilabial at 9:07 PM on July 5, 2013

"This is not the experience that is reported by people I know who are actually disabled."

There's not a lot of consistency. And offered help isn't always welcome.

I've written about this before, but my sister and I will sometimes commiserate about this stuff. We both have a congenital bone disease, live with chronic pain, and many activities are quite difficult for us. We're both usually ambulatory, she's had both hips replaced and I should have had mine replaced long ago (as well as both shoulders), and we both walk and move with visible difficulty.

But it's really difficult for anyone to know what we might need help with. Everything we do involves some pain, most things are more difficult than they are for other people. I, especially, have a very limited range of motion in my hips and shoulders and so I can't reach above my head or below my knees — which makes many things, at home and in stores, inaccessible.

A stranger isn't going to be able to tell what we can do for ourselves and what we cannot. And offered help for anything and everything would be anywhere from intrusive to insulting.

The really weird thing, though, is that our own family and friends don't ever figure out what we can and can't do, what we genuinely need help with because it's too hard (or impossible) and what is just normally difficult but part of our daily life. I think her husband is the exception to this. But our mother, who has dealt with this disease our entire lives, still doesn't quite know when to offer to help and when not to.

For some reason, I'm not really emotionally up to watching the link — I apologize for commenting without having done so. I'm not sure I want to invest fourteen minutes to listen to other people discuss this in an academic manner, and I fear that I might find some of it bothersome.

But it sounds like they deal with what is really a central issue. It's really quite like privilege, actually. The world is set up for what non-disabled people can do and it's invisible to them. But it's not invisible to those of us who are disabled. For me, this has been, in two different respects, the worst part of it. That I can't do things that it seems like I should be able to do (because I once was able to do them — unlike my sister, my case is less severe and I went though my childhood and early adulthood mostly able to do whatever I wanted). And dealing with the practical and social expectations that I should be able to do these things, that I'm often faced with a choice of calling attention to myself in an uncomfortable way by, say, asking for and propping myself on a barstool when I was a best man at a wedding. Or just going along and then hurting myself. Or not participating in an activity to avoid the problem in the first place.

Almost every single day, even for me as someone who is practically a hermit, is filled with these sorts of things.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:03 PM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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