"you are asked to believe them. But I am an unreliable narrator."
September 16, 2021 3:19 PM   Subscribe

"Impairment phenomenology is different from other kinds of phenomenology in that it does not assume a subject in command of their own faculties." Scholar Jonathan Sterne has written a forthcoming book, Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment; the introduction is now available (PDF, 54 pages, 2.5MB). The introduction briefly explains what phenomenology is, and discusses disability simulations, Sterne's own experience of thyroid cancer and an acquired impairment in his voice, the "humanities 'we'", policy implications, the interior voice, and more. It also includes excerpts from Sterne's blog posts about his disability, and a cute illustration called "Things That Are 7.5 Centimeters".

From the piece:
Against every critical impulse in my body, my own voice was tied up in my own self- conception, even though I had repeatedly critiqued the idea in my prior writing. As my voice changed, so did my relationship to it. Please resist the impulse to read this as a tragic story of loss of an ability, or a tale of overcoming. Of course there was fear in going into surgery, in not being able to breathe, and in the prospect of never speaking again. But this is really a story about how to exist in a changed body and how to negotiate that change. It is not meant to be offered as a lament or a form of mourning. I experienced a change in orientation, and phenomenology is all about orientation.....

Consider the table: phenomenologists talk a lot about tables. They contemplate them, sit at them, maybe read or write at them. My phenomenology starts on a table too, except I’m the object on the table being contemplated by everyone and everything else in the room......

In my impairment phenomenology, the experiment does not involve taking on a condition temporarily (though impairments can be temporary); it involves the incorporation of impairment into the self, which is the opposite of what happens when someone puts on a blindfold they can take off. One of the ironic results of disability simulations is that they produce too much stability in accounts of experience — “this is how it really works” — because they have not spent enough time to acquire the variety of experiences that come from living with an impairment or disability....

....I had originally wanted Diminished Faculties to simply end with a cat vomiting on me as I passed out, which is how chapter 5 concludes. However, readers of the manuscript unanimously wanted a conclusion.
posted by brainwane (8 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this. As someone who has run from and is coming to terms with my own disabilities, I am learning just how challenging it is to my perception of self. As well as just simple understanding of what being disabled even means. I think this read is exactly what I need right now.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:00 PM on September 16 [9 favorites]

I am unreasonably excited to read this. I've only managed the first few pages so far this morning, and it fits so perfectly with my reading lately, it's all I can do not to take an hour off work to finish it right away.

After a few months of pandemic-reading my way through economics, history, politics, marxism, I managed to burn myself out on all that, and thought I'd go back to reading a topic that periodically obsesses me, the question of what we know about how consciousness works. I've got a little stack of books to take with me on my vacation to orient me to current thought, and have been reading some books from the 90s to see what was current back then. And one of the fun things about reading on the topic has been the personalities involved, because when wealthy white guy professors dig in on their topics, they get very nasty toward one another, and that level of drama helps sustain the reading through the difficult parts.

But the thing is, as these guys examine consciousness, they're starting from the background of their own consciousness, where they are not living in a constant state of being challenged by an institution. They are celebrated by the institutions around them, and that's a very different relationship. I came across a passage about impairments in Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained where he joked about being impaired balancing his checkbook--how he had a sort of "benign neglect" toward his finances. And our assumed reaction, I think, is to say, "Ha! Ha! That is funny but assists me in understanding the concept of neglect!"

But I sat there staring at that a minute and realized I had no experience of that kind of neglect with finances. In fact, as someone who spent years on disability, and whose anxiety disorder often finds finances to be a nexus of worry even when things are going well, I cannot neglect the question, it cannot become a natural blind spot, any more than an antelope can afford to have a blind spot when it comes to the presence of a tiger. His joke--and his other jokes about his "impairments"--only highlighted that he had no idea how actual impairments, actual disability, affects the way we perceive and interpret the world around us.

More to the point, traditional phenomenology breaks down if there is no epoché, no way to bracket off your reaction to the world to study your mind, because your mind is created by your reaction to the world. If the mind is something the brain does, and the brain grows and develops based on the environment, then to say you are bracketing off judgment is another way of saying you are allowed to take a certain stance toward the world, without the world insisting on an immediate judgment. I think this is particularly important for people who are POC, poor, queer, disabled, as Sterne is saying. I can't anticipate the points he will make, of course, otherwise there would be no point in reading.

In the course of my little jaunt through the literature, I came across the looming reflex--an automatic reaction when something grows in your vision, i.e., when it gets closer, and had one of those moments where I had to put down the book and think for a bit. My looming reflex is...a bit overdeveloped. I flinch constantly. Things are always flying at me, flying right at my eyes. It was always kind of a joke when I was a kid, people were always rushing at me with their bodies or fists or whatever, because it was funny to see me flinch that hard. The judgment then, as the reflex makes its way to my consciousness, is holy crap the world is dangerous!

But if you're a little closeted queer kid who is developing what will one day turn into an absolutely disabling panic disorder, if you're desperately trying to hide this thing you know about yourself, then to try to bracket off that judgment is difficult in two ways: One, it ignores that your consciousness is in part created by that nexus of homophobia and disability and reflex, so you are essentially trying to shave off parts of yourself so you can get a glimpse of your real, pure consciousness, the kind that these nice philosophers must have. Second...well, again, you can't afford a blind spot if your world is dangerous. Spend too long setting aside your flinch reflex, and you're going to get punched.

Even on a more benign level, I think about the way vision--and its prostheses--affect our conscious experience. I just got glasses. They are so hard to get used to! When I'm wearing them--when I put them on and take them off quickly--they're doing something to the world in front of me. They sort of push things closer together left to right, and maybe separate them out a bit more front to back. And so as I've been doing this reading, I've been wondering--was my original vision a mistake? I'm bumping into so many things since getting the glasses, certainly they're causing a mistake instead, right? Which way of viewing the world is correct? But then, this isn't a matter of which view of the world is correct--it is about this prosthesis changing my internal sense of where my body is, where my elbows are, where my head is. You would think that this sense-of-elbows would be so fundamental, so hard to change, but it's not, it's very contingent, it's easily fooled--and ultimately not that hard to adjust to, as I'm running into things much less this week. If my sense of my own body is so easily fooled, though, what on earth must disability do to it? And why would I ever assume it was possible to bracket off those effects?

(me: i wish i had a spare hour to read this essay! also me: i will now take an hour to write an essay of my own.)
posted by mittens at 6:18 AM on September 17 [15 favorites]

I read the Introduction. This is a really interesting topic, but the book is not intended for a non-academic audience. It is published by Duke University press, it has copious footnotes, and it uses academic jargon. I left my graduate school days behind 30 years ago, and lack the motivation and patience to decipher a book like this, in a field that I have no prior experience with.

TL;DR: I hope he (or someone else) decides to write a non-academic book on the subject, in the style of Steven Pinker, or Malcom Gladwell, or Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.
posted by andrewgr at 10:34 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]

mittens & [insert clever name here] -- glad it's of interest! I look forward to hearing more of your reflections on the chapter!

I hadn't known the word epoché - thanks for that. And if you have any recommendations of people who are writing about this stuff -- from the disability angle and/or the consciousness angle -- in a way that resonates with you, I'd be interested to know those recs!

Your example of how glasses are changing your perception remind me of a nagging thing that, I now realize, has always bothered me about folks who want to argue/debate about "are we living in a simulation?" which is that (in my experience) it is as though they do not recognize the extent to which their experience is already multiply mediated, and there is a buried ableist assumption about how filters and prosthetics that ease/clarify things are falsities that ought to be gotten rid of.

andrewgr -- yes, it's written for a scholarly audience, and it's way denser than I'm used to reading, too; sorry it doesn't work for you. I took a look at what else Sterne's written and, judging from his track record, I think he's probably not going to write a more commercial/popular book on the subject. But I, too, would be interested in reading about this topic in less scholarly writing -- if you find any articles along those lines I hope you'll make a front page post about them. Also, welcome to MeFi and thanks for commenting.
posted by brainwane at 11:44 AM on September 17

Very interesting, thanks for posting! And, mittens, thank you for your time and energy to comment; I keep bumping into my own walls of perception regarding my body in space. I've known for a long time that my proprioception sense is...less?; that I use sight and hearing to compensate. Trying to work on ankle exercises, strength and stretch, is interesting with eyes open, and nearly impossible closed.
posted by winesong at 1:13 PM on September 17

OK, help me out here. A little before the brief gloss of Husserl, which says that he hoped "to produce a transcendental account of consciousness and its possibilities", we read: "Generations of thinkers have asked after the condition of possibility for experience". This predisposes me to think that Husserl's concept of a transcendental account of consciousness is fairly Kantian, where a "transcendental" inquiry is basically a fancy name for an inquiry into conditions of possibility. It's been many many years since I got a little of this in undergrad, but I seem to recall that it would be wrong to assimilate Husserl's use of "transcendental" to the Kantian sense. Does he mean what goes beyond consciousness, the world for example?
posted by thelonius at 1:52 PM on September 17

> This predisposes me to think that Husserl's concept of a transcendental account of consciousness is fairly Kantian

And you'd be correct! The concept of transcendental here is basically the one that was current in neo-Kantian circles in the early 20th century (for example as used by Husserl's friend/interlocutor/influence Paul Natorp). His project is (broadly) about the conditions for the possibility of conceptual, non-natural-scientific absolute truths (such as the truths of logic. these are seen as foundational to natural scientific truths like physical laws).

My own pet Husserl interpretation is that it is primarily devoted to a rationalization of his conversion-moment where he converted from Judaism to Lutheranism (in his journals he describes it a bit as a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment). Although Husserl basically never discusses theology in his technical writings the drive to discover the transcendental grounds for the possibility of an experience of truth which he finds undeniable is applicable to the religious experience he had (i.e., the perceived truth that Christ is God)
posted by dis_integration at 6:01 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]

Well, you never know with philosophers, who seem to love nothing more than entirely re-defining core vocabulary.
posted by thelonius at 3:19 AM on September 19

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