The Political Problems with “Bodymind”
From the Series: Disability as Rupture
I used to start academic talks with a discussion of Eric, a nonverbal student at a special education facility where I conducted fieldwork. He was abnormal by U.S. standards of communication and personhood, and the invocation of him as a representative case of autistic personhood was an attempt to unsettle standards of communication in my audiences. But, over time, I became increasingly uneasy employing Eric in this way. It was too easy, satiated anthropological tastes too neatly, made disability something to consume rather than confront. I wanted to confront the ableism inherent in how subjectivity and personhood are typically conceptualized. How might such an ethnographic practice of allowing the rupture of the nonverbal communicator unsettle “mind,” “consciousness,” and “cognition” as elements of normalcy?
I took early inspiration from the work of Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who had taken inspiration, in turn, from Spinozist materialism. Best known for his “body-minded brain” (2005), for decades Damasio argued that consciousness is not a function of the brain alone, but something that arises through bodily interactions with the world. A body and its impairments relative to the social environment in which it exists will produce particular kinds of minds. Damasio sought to show how an individual’s behavior was not the outcome of choice or desire, but was largely caused—or constrained—by the physical material of the brain; a head injury could lead to rash, uncharacteristic behavior to which the appropriate social response would be to provide care for that person rather than to pathologize them. Or so he wrote in his earliest work.
Between his Descartes’ Error in the 1990s and more recent work, Damasio became fixated on “biological value” (2010), an instinctual conception of how consciousness arises and provides the basis for individuals and communities to navigate the world—we seek out and know “value” through reflexive capacities to recognize what is biologically valuable to us as bodies. This leads him to make a stark claim about lives worth living, and he argues that individuals who are non-conscious do not count as full humans. His is a familiar form of eugenics that relies on drawing a line between who is human enough and who is too animal, who can be conscious and who is driven by instinct alone. The latter, on this view, could rightfully be exterminated—through neglect and inadequate care or genetic screening and abortion—because they lack “minds.” They are only animal bodies.
So it was with some trepidation that I observed that “bodymind” became a neologism in Disability Studies. It started in earnest with Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain” (2015). Price writes that “because mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other—that is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as two—it makes more sense to refer to them together, in a single term” (2015, 269). Price’s work is vital in working through how “mental” disorders (such as learning disabilities) are simultaneously rendered invisible and the object of intense institutional scrutiny; the category of the “mental” is central to that work because it locates disability in dominant conceptions of the body, such that “mental” disorders can be acted on through certain kinds of institutional and medical practices. But the proliferation of “bodymind” does something else as well; it reifies “mind” as a function of bodies. Price doesn’t cite Damasio, but credits the idea to Babette Rothschild who does (2000, xiii). Is it too much to suggest that “bodymind” has ableism baked into it because of its genealogy? Or would it be sufficient to argue that any invocation of “mind” is necessarily ableist? After all, we all have bodies, but some of us do not have minds—at least not minds that are recognized as such due to ableist presumptions about what a mind should be.
I became drawn to contexts in which communication was surprising—not with people who were expected to be able to represent themselves through language, but with people who, from a biomedical perspective, should not be able to communicate. I found tools to conceptualize subjectivity and personhood differently and without the ableist biases that emphasize typical forms of language-use, which led me to focus on the ways disabled communicators rely on the facilitation of and their mutual animation with others in interactions. Doing so provided a way to situate “minds” that have evaded anthropology and ethnography as the foundation of, rather than exceptions to, a more capacious model of subjectivity. But I don’t call them minds—I accept them as people in bodies with livable lives.
I found that writing about other kinds of communication and critiquing assumptions about “able-mindedness” (Kafer 2013, 183)—and assumptions about “minds” at all—causes strong reactions! Some psychologists, physicians, parents, and anthropologists are deeply wedded to ideas about normal communication that are ruptured when they confront other forms of communication that seem to work as means to express the inner worlds of people once accepted as linguistically empty. The brain as the seat of the self and language as the basis of subjectivity are woven into everyday life and throughout the humanities and social sciences. Writing about non-normative forms of communication like Facilitated Communication and Augmentative and Alternative Communication elicit ungenerously skeptical peer reviews and hostile email messages. But writing about disability experiences that often fall off the edges of disciplinary interests also elicits correspondence from grateful individuals and families who feel themselves represented, finally.
Letting go of “thinking” and “mind” and “consciousness” and “cognition” is a difficult prospect. Because of the work they do in differentiating human and animal (Taylor 2017), differentiating between kinds of humans, distancing our bodily experiences from their environments, and creating a primacy of language, forgoing a “mindful” world entails letting go of a lot. I am convinced that another world is possible: It is just unthought.
Damasio, Antonio. 2005. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. London: Penguin.
Damasio, Antonio. 2010. Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Vintage.
Kafer, Alison. 2013. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Price, Margaret. 2015. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30, no. 1: 268–84.
Rothschild, Babette. 2000. The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: W. W. Norton.
Taylor, Sunaura. 2017. Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. New York: The New Press.