Dr. Anna Hickey-Moody is the Head of the PhD in Arts and Learning at the Centre for The Arts and Learning, Goldsmiths, and the editor of  ‘Disability Matters’, an anthology which explores how ideas and experiences of disability come to matter across assemblages of media, through vectors of affect and experiences of pedagogy. In this article she argues for the radical potential of dance choreographed and performed by people with intellectual disabilities to remake their social faces.

Medical knowledges of disability still largely construct social faces of people with intellectual disability. They attribute particular significances to their physical features and argue these are signs of a specific kind of subjectivity. Space is rarely provided for the proliferation of alternative, relational, sense based knowledges. In this blog post, I discuss this ‘bleed’ of medical discourses from the clinical context to the social/everyday and argue it is political: it shapes the meaning that disability can come to have.  I gesture towards some critical perspectives on medical discourses of intellectual disability and explore some ways that dance with people with disabilities might open up medical discourses. As conceptual tools, the Deleuzo-Guattarian ideas of prospects and functives (1996: 134-162) offer a useful way to contextualise medical knowledges of intellectual disability. Prospects and functives articulate some limits of medical discourses and explicate the politics of knowledge construction undertaken within medical discourses. They offer an insightful way of reading discourses of intellectual disability in light of medical purposes and also in terms of other possible ways for making meaning that medical discourses are not able to realise.

The Politics of Making Faces

Functives and prospects are ideas that consider the ways scientific systems, such as medical discourses, operate. Deleuze and Guattari (1996: 117-33) remind us that scientific systems have been developed in order to shape the physical world rather than conceptualise it. Medical terms, or the terms constituting any discursive system, form parts of a set that is constructed on a plane of reference. Deleuze and Guattari (1996, 1987) argue that thought constitutes (and in turn is constructed upon) a plane of immanence. Art is constructed on (and makes up) a plane of sensation. In a similar manner, science builds and inhabits a plane of reference. A plane of reference is comparable to a three-dimensional graph:

Science is haunted not by its own unity but by the plane of reference constituted by all the limits or borders through which it confronts chaos. It is these borders that give the plane its references. As for the system of co-ordinates, they populate or fill out the plane of reference itself. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1996: 119-120)

A plane of reference is constructed through discursive systems. As a discursive system, medical knowledges are composed of ‘functives’ (1996: 118) or elements of physical functions that are actualised within a discursive system.

As a method of construction, discursive systems are both pragmatic and political – “[s]cience … relinquishes the infinite, infinite speed, in order to gain a reference able to actualise the virtual”. In other words, while art and thought open up the actual to possibilities of the virtual, science (or medicine) crafts physical positions through accessing limited parts of the virtual. The ‘normal body’ imagined within contemporary medical discourses constitutes a majoritarian analytic position. This position is not actualised in the body of one human being as much as it is constructed through medical analyses of many different human bodies. – Think about the ‘human’ genome project, a ‘mapping’ of the human body that required thousands of bodies to make. Although this imagined ‘norma’l body is not a singular, corporeal active agent per se, as an ideal it holds much power. This power is attributed to the imagined normal body through the medical discourses that construct it. They are mutually constitutive.

Medical discourses should remain firmly grounded in problems of medical practice, as they are discursive systems that serve to ‘mend’ problems within medical science. Such context-specific tools cannot be employed to repair conceptual problems. The understanding of bodies afforded through employing the medical term ‘intellectual disability’ within the conceptual structures of medical discourses imposes a set of negative limits upon bodies. These ‘limits’ are performed through the words ‘intellectual disability’, suggesting an embodied lack. In contrast the medical face of disability created through the words ‘intellectual disability’, a dance piece or painting is created by humans, but its impact on culture: the pedagogical work it undertakes in inviting new ways of seeing and relating, in effecting economies of exchange, can not be confined to once discursive system – sensations open up discursive or closed systems. This affective pedagogy of aesthetics is a spatial, temporal assemblage in which historicized practices of art production, ways of seeing, spaces and places of viewing are plugged into one another and augmented. Subjective change is part of a broader assemblage of social change, activated by the production of new aesthetic milieus. New faces are made, through new feelings. Dance made and performed by people with intellectual disabilities offer new ways of relating to intellectual disability, and make new social faces through feeling.

Launching this week with a public debate on austerity and disability, a new Disability Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London which aims to explore and address some of the biggest issues facing disabled people today and features a focus on Disability Arts.

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