«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Accessibility organizing as (counter) public making The experiencing of receiving two different kinds of responses to my organizing work at the Unapologetic Burlesque Showcase gave me the opportunity to reflect on the notion accessibility. Is there necessarily a tension between disability justice organizing and coordinating events with newcomers in mind? What is the significance of the fact that efforts to include people with disabilities were off putting to the show's newcomers? In what way does this significance allow community organizers to re-think the way that they go about accessibility work?
In his conversation with me Scott explained that the students he invited to Unapologetic were not familiar with the kinds of disability justice organizing practices that I coordinated.
Sharing his thoughts on why this might be, he explained that as much as signs and announcements may define the concept of "accessibility usher" or "active listener", to the extent that the show was organized around the work of these volunteers and the fact that a understanding of these roles "went over the heads" of the shows newcomers, these practices effectively had the consequence of alienating newcomer participation. I would argue however that these accessibility activities not only had the negative effect of mis-recognizing the audience members in attendance but also the discursively positive effect of constructing a particular kind of participant through the accessibility practices put in place. In this particular case, organizing the show around practices like trigger warnings and active listeners not only is off putting to some event newcomers, but is also anticipatory of the kinds of audience members that the event imagines.
This process of anticipatory imagining is central to existing scholarship on the study of publics. Warner (2002) proposes three different though not entirely separable understandings of a public: a social totality, a concrete audience and a space of discourse. Focusing on the latter, he argues that a text can be described as public if it addresses people who cannot be known in advance and who are identified primarily through their discursive participation. Yet enrollment into a public is not always a straightforward process, "the magic by which discourse conjures a public into being, however, remains imperfect because of how much it must presuppose...It appears to be open to indefinite strangers, but in fact selects participants by criteria of shared social space (though not necessarily territorial space), habitus, topical concerns, intergeneric references, and circulating intelligible forms" (2002, p. 75) For Warner, the very act of constituting a public is a selective process in which not everyone takes part.
Althusser's (1971) work on ideology and subjectivity is helpful in thinking through this process of "selecting" participants for a public. He argues that ideology, "functions in a way that it 'recruits' subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'hey you there!' Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred and eighty degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was 'really' addressed to him, and that 'it was really him who was hailed' (and not someone else) (1971, p. 129) In her analysis of the efficacy with which clients of a drug treatment center are able to petition the center’s board for specific demands, E. Summerson Carr (2009) provides a contemporary ethnographic example of how identities are formed through this process of interpellation. She forwards the concept of “anticipatory interpellation” (reading how one is hailed as a particular subject and responding as such) as a way to account for client’s success.
She points out that while norms of speaking differ within therapeutic and administrative settings, drug center clients are still expected to adhere to therapeutic norms when they enter the boardroom as client representatives. She shows how one client, Rhonda, was able to secure childcare for the program because she deliberately petitioned the board members as a client, couching the importance of childcare in the context of her journey as a recovering addict. By anticipating how she would and could be heard by the board and adjusting her actions accordingly, Rhonda’s appeal was met with success in a way that Louise, in failing to adhere to therapeutic norms of talk, was not able to replicate.
Situating Unapologetic’s accessibility work within a model of interpellation, audience members may “turn around” when hailed by efforts intended to include those who typically do not participate in these events. Yet turning around, Althusser’s metaphor of coming into subjectivity, is dependent on the ability to recognize the means through which this hailing occurs. In Carr’s example Louise is kicked out of the program because she does not behave in ways that are expected of her; she does not conform to the terms on which she is hailed.
Similarly, newcomers to Unapologetic are unfamiliar with the event’s accessibility practices.
These efforts (trigger warnings active listeners, accessibility ushers, ASL interpreters, reserved seating for particular groups etc.) are not universally legible. Instead they imagine particular kinds of participants who would respond to these practices in specific ways. For instance, audience members were invited to talk to active listeners in case they needed to deal with issues around emotional support or safety, not necessarily if they had clarifying questions about the show itself. By recruiting active listeners, Unapologetic thus anticipated the kinds of audience members in attendance and how they would engage with these volunteers.
The tension between how the accessibility efforts of this showcase anticipatorily imagine their audience members and the ways in which flesh and blood event attendees engage with these overtures allow us to take seriously Cody's argument that "the political subject of publicity is deeply entangled in the very technological, linguistic and conceptual means of its own self production" (2011, p. 47). Cody's elaboration of a "political subject of publicity" highlights one of the challenges of using Althusser's model of interpellation as a way of understanding the accessibility efforts of queer and trans of color community organizers. While Althusser envisions the process of hailing as the means through which an individual becomes a subject, QTPOC accessibility organizing efforts are not concerned with individual subjectivity per se but rather with the creation of a particular kind of public (subject). In this case, I follow Warner’s (2002) discursive concept of publicity, which is (partly) defined through the hailing of unknown others.
Thus, while QTPOC accessibility organizing practices create a particular kind of public, the logics of these practices rest on an understanding that it is not possible to know beforehand hand exactly who these participants might be.
In trying to get a sense of what is happening within this public making process, it is important to consider those who are in the business of creating these publics, their (un)intended audiences and the relationships between them. Thus QTPOC accessibility organizing does not address unqualified unknown others, but rather unknown others who are nevertheless discursive participants. For instance, Unapologetic Burlesque describes itself as an anti-racist, queer, consensual performance series and while it does not attempt to restrict participation in its events, it nevertheless does anticipatorily imagine some social parameters that characterize its participants. As indicated on its website, Unapologetic Burlesque states, performers, audience members and people who make all of this possible include, but are not limited to folks who identify as; queer, youth, people of colour, Indigenous, fat, chronically ill, disabled or with a varying set of abilities/disabilities, and folks from a wide range of class, work and educational backgrounds. We are continuously engaging in dialogue with community members and individual/group reflection processes of who gets access to stage or learning spaces, who gets left out and why, and what structures can be built in order to increase accessibility and representation (Unapologetic Burlesque, n.d.) Within the framing of its accessibility work, Unapologetic is not interested in reaching just anybody and everybody; rather it seeks to explicitly address unknown others whose life experiences are characterized by subordination in some way.
However, as can be seen earlier, Unapologetic is concerned not only with subordinated populations in general but with people with disabilities in particular. The fact that queer and trans people of color are engaging in disability justice work has important implications for the study of the interconnected nature of the politics of difference. By examining the interconnectedness of the mechanisms of social difference on the basis of disability, race, gender and sexuality, we can more clearly understand the significance of queer and trans of color organizers seeking to make their initiatives more accessible to people with disabilities. If the terms on which people with disabilities are subject to human disqualification are also the terms on which racialized, gendered and sexualized minorities are constituted as "other", the fact that QTPOC organizers are working on issues of disability justice can also be seen as a way in which they are working against their own subordination.27 In making such a statement however, it is important to refute two possible though contradictory entailments. The first is that although disability scholars have tried to show how disability is often the foundation on which other modes of social difference are devalued, the way in which mechanisms of devaluation are manifest vary widely across these different modes. Thus for instance, while racism and ableism may be related to processes of For many critical disability scholars, it is the notion of disability that serves as the basis upon which other subordinate populations are subject to mechanisms of exclusion. For instance, Siebers maintains that disability frequently anchors the status of marginalized identities. He argues, disability functions according to a symbolic mode different from other representations of minority difference. It is as if disability operates symbolically as an othering other. It represents a diacritical marker of difference that secures inferior, marginal, or minority status...the pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness and injury come to signify inferior human status (2008, p. 6).
For queer and trans people of color in particular, issues of disability are particularly salient because the inferiority of racialized, gendered and sexual difference is premised on its association with disability. For instance, in examining the relationship between disability and race, Snyder and Mitchell contend, "if we consider racism to be tethered to biology, then drawing parallels between racism and ableism seem necessary particularly given that disability is inevitably seen as degraded biology" (2003, p. 859). In the realm of gender and sexuality, McRuer makes an analogous connection between queerness and disability and argues that “the system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness: that, in fact, compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodiness and vice-versa" (2006, p.
disqualification on the basis of biological inferiority, racist and ableist practice may be enacted and experienced in very different ways. Secondly, though racism and ableism are related but distinct modes of devaluation, the existence of sick and disabled queer and trans folks of color (of which there are many in this project), make it impossible to understand the categories of disability, race, gender and sexuality as isolable dimensions of social difference in terms of lived experience.
Now the fact that queer and trans of color community initiatives like Unapologetic are committed to a specific kind of accessibility organizing practice has important implications not only for the kinds of audiences that it is able to bring into its events but for the study of publics in general. While all accessibility-as-public-making efforts involve reaching out to unknown others, the fact that these QTPOC organizations are concerned specifically with marginalized groups means that they are not just involved in creating undifferentiated publics but rather what Nancy Fraser (1990) calls “subaltern counter publics”. She describes these publics as, "parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs" (1990, p. 67).