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Challenging The Idea of Independence As A Desirable End

S. Yaeger's picture

In thinking about a topic for this paper, I was utterly confused.  I have never actually written a promptless paper before, and the idea of doing so ramped up my anxiety to the point of crippling any productive thought.  Then, I encountered Margaret Price and her writings on the intersection of mental disability (an umbrella term for mental and neurological illness) and academic discourse.  I am drawn to Price’s analysis of how academia excludes those who have mental disabilities for several reasons.  The first is that  I have, as some would say, a dog in the race of disabilities studies as the interact with academia, since I have a variety of common mental ailments, including several learning disabilities and what therapists are now thinking might be P.T.S.D.  Additionally, my peer mentor at my previous school is a schizophrenic who actually uses the rigors of college to cope with the hallucinations and delusions which plague him.  However, beyond the initial attraction of seeing something of myself reflected in a non-cure oriented text, I was driven to interest in some of the issues which Price examines through our classroom discussion on the topic. 

During our  discussion, many students seemed to be unsure of how the mentally ill could fit into academic life, with its demands of, among other things, rationality, presence, participation, truth,  and coherence.  However, most of the class also seemed to agree that independence is completely required in order to fit into the world of academic work.  The idea that we are all, by necessity, independent, struck me as problematic.  I began to wonder if we are really independent, and if so, to what extent.  What does independence even mean in an academic setting?  Many might argue that we are independent in the sense that we think our own thoughts, read texts as solitary beings, live independently of our families, and author texts independently.  However, I am not convinced that this is the case. Furthermore, the idea of students and faculty thinking and existing independently of one another, and of the academy as an entity being independent of the world at large is actually a hindrance as we attempt to examine issues of self, categorization, ability, and gender.

In order to explain where this thought originated, it’s helpful to discuss the concepts of diffraction and intradependence as laid out by Karen Barrad.  Though I’m not sure that I fully understand these concepts as they operate concretely in physics, I find them extremely helpful in challenging ideas.  From what I do understand, diffraction is the process of matter being passed through a variety of filters and emerging on the other side as new matter.  The most helpful visual to me in understanding this is the visual of two waves intersecting and creating an entirely new pattern of waves.  In this process, not only does the act of passing one thing through another create a new thing, but that creation is hinged upon both agents being present.  In other words, though both agents exist on their own,  in diffraction, both agents are dependent upon one another in the act of creation.  This is what I understand to be called intra-dependence.  

Though I was initially flummoxed by the inclusion of a quantum physics concept in a social theory class, the idea of diffraction is actually very helpful to me when thinking about how we work as students, and how that type of work can foster a change in our collective understanding of the way we label and divide ourselves and others.  In contrast to the idea presented in class and by the widely accepted narrative about intellectual work being an independent pursuit, intra-active and intra-dependent may be the best way to describe both how we interact within the academic environment, and how that interaction gets carried out into the world at large as we seek to continue questioning accepted ideas of ability and gender. 

In order to explain where I see these ideas intersecting, it is helpful to me to begin with how our true work in school is an intra-active process, and how I see this process as being wholly necessary for the formation of new thought.  While it’s true that reading and writing are usually carried out independently, at least to some degree, and that these beginning and end stages of intellectual work are often seen as the most crucial, it’s possible to think of them as not being wholly independent and to think of them as not actually being the most important processes of this sort of work.  Even thought, itself, is not wholly independent, in that it is not created or processed in a vacuum.  Every thought that we have, though seemingly originating from an internal place, is formed by the intra-action of our thoughts with the thoughts we read, hear and see borne out.  It is diffracted against endless filters as we work through it, both internally and through discussion, and it is often this intra-action that helps to create new ideas and strengthen or replace existing ones.  If I understand it correctly, this idea formation and testing is what the work of academics is all about and, so, it was slightly surprising to me to read Price’s characterization of the academic environment requiring independence, and equally surprising to hear my classmates agree.  Perhaps, the idea of academia requiring independence is not only a little off the mark, but is only barring those with mental disabilities by being presented as a truth. Furthermore, perhaps this ideological barring is actually preventing us from finding new ways to diffract existing ideas into new ones. Similarly, if the idea that mental disability is incommensurate with academic work is barring we who are already in “the academy” from gaining new catalysts for thought, then perhaps it is also possible to extend this idea of intra-active thinking to both the way we approach physical disability and the way we approach gender. 

When we discuss physical disability, it is often with one of a few existing narratives in place.  Eli Clare discussed these narratives as frequently taking one of three forms.  The first form is the ever popular “super-crip”.  As described by Clare, the super crip is a disabled person who is transcending the accepted boundaries of their disability in order to perform everyday tasks which range from having a lover to driving a car.  This narrative of transcending crippled to become super may be made possible by our idea that independence is the ultimate goal for anyone. Additionally, it reinforces the idea that those who has a physical impairment are wholly separate from those who don’t, and that their disability exists as an independent marker of who they are.  They are disabled instead of being sexual, queer, funny, smart, capable, or any other aspect of being that could potentially intra-act with their abilities. It is only when they present themselves as having successfully sanctioned off their dis-abled parts that they can perceived as whole, or even capable if having processes that intra-act with their disabilities.

In conceiving as ourselves as being independent and of each aspect of ourselves as operating independently from the other, we also reinforce the boundaries that have been created between genders.  We begin by conceiving of gender  and sexuality as being something that is so independent of our consciousness that it is something that can be assigned and must be carried through life in a sort of stasis.  Only two genders are available, they operate independently of one another, and there is no room for thought, desire, consciousness, or self-awareness to intra-act with these labels in order to create new ones.   Our sexuality must be either biologically driven or consciously chosen, never a combination of thousands of diffractions.

Perhaps, if we challenge the notion that independence is necessary or desirable,  then, it is possible to conceive of academia as being world that not only tolerates a lack of independence, but needs it to move forward.  In reframing the idea of thought and the formation of theory as being an intra-active process, we can then begin to form thoughts which highlight the intra-active nature of being, from mental illness, to physical disability, and finally, to gender and sex.  I believe that, in doing that, we can then begin to make true progress toward not only understanding how our own processes of intra-action and diffraction affect the way that we think, but also gain an infinite number of new ideas with which to intra-act.  Perhaps a good place to start is to imagine our own ideas diffracting off those of someone whose thoughts are informed by a consciousness which is very different from our own.

















Kaye's picture

intra-dependence as liberating

Thank you for posting such rich and provocative thoughts!  I too have resisted the valorization of independence in our culture, while be wary of moving too far towards co-dependency!  I applaud your holding up of "intra-dependency" as a more creative and honest description of academia (and life). Your argument also substantiates the value of inter-disciplinary work (and perhaps we should call our class "INTRA-disciplinary Persepctives on Gender and Sexuality").  However, please don't limit our course as merely being a "social theory class"--we aspire to do much more than that!  You yourself have reached beyond social theory by taking a concept from quantum physics and generating a new analysis of gender, sexuality, disability, and the academy. (You might want to return to that claim at the end of your paper to give it a more substantive conclusion.)

As someone trained in the natural sciences, I may be less tied to the idea of independence than those trained in the social sciences or humanities.  As we have seen in the two articles from PNAS, scientists are blatantly collaborative.  Rarely is a scientific paper the work of a single author.  In addition to having colleagues who help envision, fund, carry out, analyze the work, any experiment is based on growing body of techniques, results, and interpretations from other scientists.  Although natural scientists may be the most social of academicians, I would argue that social scientifist and humanists also rely on the theories, texts and analyses of others and that they should acknowledge and appreciate the intra-dependence inherent in their fields.

Your opening paragraph resonated strongly with an article in the Oct 23 edition of the New York Times:

A High-Profile Executive Job as Defense Against Mental Ills

which highlights a research study about people who are successfully managing their mental illnesses (with the help of therapists, co-workers, family and friends) to be productive, high-achieving professionals.  Are they "super-crips" or are they demonstrating a new model of intra-activity that would allow more people to succeed?