Embodiment: Mooring disability identity
Embodiment is the principle of rooting one’s identity in the reality of one’s body. Feminists point out that cultural practice interprets embodiment; for instance, in many societies women’s bodies have functioned as objects that are possessed and controlled by men. Similarly, people with disabilities disproportionately experience themselves as being the physical objects of other people’s abuse and control.
In the ‘poor law’ system from which our social service institutions evolved, any physical or mental impairment was seen as evidence of incompetence; impaired individuals merited assistance for being ‘defective’. People with disabilities are thus immensely vulnerable to ensnarement by custodial systems which possess and control their bodies. They often must endure health care and social services that coerce them into compliant behavior and exploit them as a source of livelihood for the service providers.
The anguish of women whose bodies fall away from cultural ideals is as intense for those with disabilities as for others, so emancipatory feminist analyses such as Susan Bordo’s on the coerciveness of our culture’s somatic idealizations are broadly and helpfully applicable to disability. Some analyses of embodiment exhort devalued people to regain authority over the reality of their corporeal being through heightened awareness of their bodily functions. However, Wendell argues that such theories remain influenced by masculinist dualisms and obsessions with the perfect body.
Too often embodiment theories are unrealistic about how we (should) relate to our bodies, wanting us to think we can experience our bodies as pleasant and rewarding by wresting control of our bodies from dominant groups and thereby curing the cultural corruption that alienates us from our corporeal selves. To escape being absorbed by pain, Wendell says, her body compels her to refrain from identifying with her corporeal states. She has had to reorganize her experiential expectations so as to take less notice of her physical condition. Doing so does not devalue her body, although it makes her rethink whether recent philosophical attempts to eliminate mind-body dualism have accorded appropriate attention to how complex the relationship between consciousness and (suffering) bodies is likely to be.
Incidentally, bioethicists like Peter Singer (who justifies withholding life-saving interventions from individuals whose suffering may be a great burden to themselves and/or others) rarely if ever address these sophisticated and subtle questions about embodiment. But the philosopher-poet Karen Fiser does so in writing about how people with disabilities experience social invisibility, and feminist philosopher Christine Overall does so by analyzing women’s experiences of ‘normal’ and ‘anomalous’ fleshly being. Philosophy Now
-We struggle with identity when we have a disability or a chronic illness. This idea of being embodied beings in the world becomes skewed by our perception of our bodies and our bodies being in the world. It does bring out an enhanced sort of dualistic thinking. Mostly because of an awareness of our bodies state of being that others simply do not have. I am aware constantly of pain and therefore location of pain, intensity of pain, expectations of duration of pain, what my level of functioning is with it and location of my body and how that relates to my pain. This isn’t counting all the other symptoms I am equally aware of. It just points out I have far more constant awareness of my body. So much so I actually engage in distraction techniques to lessen my awareness of it. Most people have awareness only based on needs of the body and the senses. So the body is far less intrusive. This automatically creates a stronger sense of dualism. There is me and the body preventing the me from enacting what I want to do, limiting my actions, inhibiting my actions, compelling me to consider or plan my actions. It isn’t just me acting. This added step of considering ‘well what does my body think about that?’ is suggesting I am separate from my body.
It is an illusion of course. It is one we perceive because of our Attention to our bodies additional considerations and needs but does not change the fact that classic dualism categories of ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can be equally effected by chronic illness, and pain in fact, and effect each other in quite unexpected ways. Like it is rather hard to say just where pain Is. Is it in your the nerves of your foot? The part of your brain sending the signal to the foot? Or the part of the brain communicating with that giving you the reaction to pain? Or all of them. Turns out pain is a rather complicated thing indeed. Meditation, biofeedback and neurofeedback can help with chronic pain management and how then is just thinking impacting pain? It seems mind and body are so interconnected we are embodied beings, whether we are chronically ill or not… perhaps something we should seriously consider being chronically ill. However, there is the core essential ‘consciousness’ that is yet to be explained by anyone definitively. How does this thing called consciousness rise out of our neural network anyway? Certainly it is no specific location. And we can say as embodied beings our consciousness is more splintered by our awareness of our physical wellbeing. For example how pain effects concentration, attention and memory. We are split from being aware of our environment and our physical discomfort; more pain less awareness of our enviroment or ability to focus on it. And we can also, conversely, direct our consciousness to focus on something to distract ourselves from the physical sensation, to a degree.
But we are aware that we are devalued by society because of what they believe to be limitations, restrictions and decreased functionality. We know that our being in the world is different than others. That it tells a different story but it is one that people do not wish to hear. Less ability to function means less. Perhaps less mobility, less financial stability, less productivity. Lack of mobility in these areas appears to mean stagnation. Like there is this lack of possibility and potential that frightens people. Like we are broken toys. Sorry, can’t play anymore. Game over? Hardly. There is a certain discomfort in this. People do not like to see that which reminds them of their own fragility. If they can ignore it they will. It can lead to stigma because that which people fear they can hate, they can diminish because it makes them uncomfortable. For we cannot be all ‘equal’ if one must provide accommodations to others for them to function. Ones worth is defined by their ability to function ‘normally’ and their apparent usefulness to ‘society’, not intrinsically. Therefore people must be of less worth if they cannot function in the same ways as what is considered to be normal, even if there is no thing as normal. Even if normal is so varied it is ludicrous to use the term. Even if the disability is invisible and the coping of which is behind the scenes, once it is learned of, people apply generalizations to that person and labels to suggest their worth is less. They are ‘mentally unstable’ or ‘crazy’ if they need medication to manage a mental illness.
Part of our struggle with identity then has to do with our own preconceived notions of what is worthwhile in ourselves and by society. It can be extremely difficult if our illness or disability drastically affects our work or we are unable to work. That means in some way we are not longer a functioning member of society. Our worth has been decreased. Our self-worth, of which a great deal can be contingent on what we do must be re-evaluated. What is the intrinsic worth of a person? What they do for a living? Or what contribution they make to society as a whole, loved ones and friends? Or is there value intrinsically in our existence as a Person?