Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Disabled or Vulnerable?

‘…a philosopher whose total formal education consisted of seven years in the New York public school system, and during its most feral period. Strange, he thought, how character shows itself. The old man was in touch with some level of knowledge which told him how to behave, not in the social sense, but in a deeper, more permanent way. He’ll adjust to this world here, Jack decided.’
                                                P. K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip


Is disability no more than an economic category now – a means of classification for purely economic purposes?

Take one case study: the minefield that is UK higher education. When I applied from school to Lincoln College, Oxford to read English back in 1989, I was rejected specifically on the grounds of the interviewers’ worry that my stammer would prevent me from keeping up with the social life in the college. So I read English at Edinburgh instead, couldn’t make any friends in that icy city (frozen between gentility and deprivation, rather as I was), and developed depression along with a serious alcohol problem that it took me five years to shake off. By the time I stopped drinking (early 1997) I was trapped in an inappropriate PhD course, at a university (Cambridge) where, as my supervisor Simon Jarvis told me very early on, I would ‘never fit in’. I had been told on the telephone in Edinburgh that three members of the Cambridge English Faculty had all expressed an interest in supervising my originally proposed thesis; when I arrived in Cambridge these people had vanished, and I went through three random supervisors in my first term, before Jarvis – who again was no specialist in my proposed area of study – approached  me early in the new year. After two supervisions he had rejected my theoretical model and we came to a decision to radically narrow the subject of my thesis to a single-author study. This was to be undertaken in accordance with his theoretical interests.

Jarvis told me that I would use Adorno (that most intimidating of philosophers), or he would not supervise me – i.e. I would have to leave the university. For one thing this was a betrayal of Adorno’s work, directed as it is against the dominative instrumental application of concepts to culture. I considered a complete change of tack, a transfer to the Courtauld Institute, but Jarvis threatened me again, saying that if I moved I would be known as a quitter and would never get a job anywhere. So I was trapped, in a thesis which I knew was itself almost certainly making me unemployable: in an advisers’ meeting (the only one we had) with Jarvis and I, Jeremy Prynne had expressed his worry that my thesis was risky: what would I work on after it? (The layers of irony in the strange medieval world of Cambridge English studies: I was allocated Mr Prynne, the one Faculty member without a doctorate, as an additional adviser for my own doctorate; he then turns out to be the only senior figure at all concerned about my postdoctoral prospects!). Though I survived the whole assault course and completed the thesis, this seven-year nightmare did probably definitively wreck my chances of ever earning a living. I found myself lacking a support network, and unprepared for teaching courses in any other university. I felt, and still feel, exhausted, bullied and exploited.

In the end, after being kept waiting nine months for my half-hour viva, in this oral exam the ‘internal examiner’, Drew Milne, only deigned to say two or three sentences to me. The message: we will never accept a freak like you in the club, even after all these years of work. At least Rod Mengham had kindly volunteered to meet me in the pub afterwards, because he feared I might get a proper mauling. (In American universities the examiners coach you through all the years of producing the thesis; my viva was the only time I have met either of my examiners). Then, as abuse finally modulated into farce, the admin office sent out the wrong confirmation letter, announcing that I needed to re-submit the thesis. When I requested to be sent the ‘pass’ letter, they apologized and said that they send the re-submission letter out as a matter of course now, ‘because none of the students can spell any more’.

I feel that, essentially, in the higher education world I was steamrollered by an impersonal bureaucratic system which reduced me to the status of a mere economic unit (a source of funding for the university), and enabled certain unsavoury individuals to take advantage of my vulnerability. Of course in recent years higher education institutions have started employing Disability Support Officers: to attempt to ease the student-consumer’s experience of an institution otherwise still largely indifferent to the needs of those with ‘difficult’ lives. After I was informed that I have such a life, by the course leader interviewing me for a place on the last degree course I attempted, in 2010, I decided – for the first time in my life – to label myself ‘disabled’ (on account of my stammer), in order to become eligible for a DCSF ‘Diversity Bursary’ funding my fees.

In the event this taxpayer’s money was wasted after all (just as my four years of British Academy funding had been), because the lecturers couldn’t get it together to organize one of the two required placements for me, and I was forced to leave the course midway through. Ironically, I was re-training to be a careers adviser – so it’s not just me who was helped in no way at all. This degree was total chaos; but effectively managed chaos. By the beginning of the second semester the course leader had refused a pay cut and left, her replacement had stolen my digital recorder and stopped responding to my emails, and the other students’ multifarious complaints had been successfully brushed aside by the Rector: the normalization of despair.

Those who battled through to the end of the course – two soul-destroying years of playing at bureaucracy, CRB checks and being refused access to real interviewing experience, crammed into one dizzying year for financial reasons – were confronted by the imminent collapse of public sector career guidance. Those with any residual care ethos would have stuck with the remnants of the Connexions service for which we had been ‘trained’, perhaps to be rewarded with two months of employment before receiving the sack in the latest bout of restructuring. This actually happened to my friend from the course, Tolu, in Brent. The real careers advisers, the streetwise ex-youth workers who understood that the job is more about keeping vulnerable youth out of prison – for example through an Activity Agreement – than launching impossible ‘careers’, were already in place and qualifying via the NVQ route instead. I get the feeling that the majority of the ‘professionally qualified’ careers advisers, the more self-motivated, 20-somethings from the degree course, went private. You could return to corporate HR work – in which case the degree was unnecessary, no more than a weird status symbol – or perhaps strike out independently in ‘education management’.

This sounds like the usual ruse: make money out of other people’s misfortune, by erecting just one more level of bureaucracy between the staff class and the client class. All that matters is the maintenance of that boundary, staff member vs service user, adviser vs benefit recipient, worker vs sick person, intrepid commuter vs stay-at-home: this began to seem to me to be the whole purpose of the youth services/guidance industry. I was becoming embittered once more; attempting to project the Hobbesian combat model of social relations which I had experienced in our universities, so as to explain the entire workings of society.

But what an idea in the first place, that I could ever work as a careers adviser. I had simply been reduced to desperation by my inability to develop an academic career. Which, as I have indicated, is another story, a narrative of institutional abuse coupled with my own incapacity which eventually traversed five universities before my final ejection from academia. When I was relieved of some of the dreadful weight of having to impress, build those social boundaries.

Think too of another example, other than my doomed Diversity Bursary, of what we could call the economizing, or the economization of disability today; the reduction of disabled people to the status of economic units. Vulnerable adults – sometimes after having been discriminated against in the workplace, or failed by the education system – are often recipients of Disability Living Allowance. Here the term ‘disability’ is often just a bureaucratic cloak for the words ‘mental illness’, referring as they do to ‘the last taboo’ in our regimented consumer society. Perhaps it is easier to herd people together under the abstract economic label ‘disabled’, than to recognize that we are human individuals suffering from diverse illnesses – and that it is in fact the conditions of this society that have made us depressed, or schizophrenic, or agoraphobic? And now, having been reduced – just as back in the asylums – to the status of a crowd of nondescript nonentities, mentally ill people are being deprived of their DLA left, right and centre. With or without being sent to a barbaric Work Capability Assessment centre first.


Stammerers, to refer finally to a third example of today’s economizing logic, only tend to have recourse to disability legislation if we are involved in an employment tribunal (say concerning an unfair dismissal), when – in very rare cases – we can appeal to the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. Again, disability status appears to be all about money.

Partly for all these reasons, because it seems to me that the word ‘disability’ is only ever used in an economic context nowadays, I have decided to use the term ‘vulnerability’ instead, in the title of this blog [: the blog was originally called Downcast Lids, but subtitled 'reflections on philosophy and vulnerability' - RB 13.12.12]. And after all, everyone can be classed as a vulnerable adult, at some time in – or on some level of – their lives.

The subjects I want to write about in this blog concern us all, and none of us should be regarded simply as economic units. Whether or not we are to be so regarded is a question which was posed by Karl Jaspers, in his 1931 work The Spiritual Condition of the Age .

‘The realisation of the existence of economic forces, of masses, of apparatus, of mechanisation, has, through research, led to the growth of a science which claims universal validity. In actual fact the reality embodied in it is a mighty one. It has become a new, and at length a spiritual force. Nevertheless, insofar as it claims to be anything more than the rational control of purposive activity, insofar as it puts forward a claim to absolute status as a picture of life in its entirety, it has become, so to say, a creed or a faith which the spirit must either accept or resist. Whilst scientific research in particular (as far as this field is concerned) is occupied in the study of the qualities and quantities of economic forces, what is decisive in our consciousness of the mental situation is the answer we give to the question whether these economic forces and their results are the only and the universally dominant realities for mankind.’

Jaspers’ concepts of vulnerability (of failure, of ‘foundering’) are so attractive now because they enable us to identify the anti-economizing activity of the ‘spirit’, or of our ‘consciousness of the mental situation’ – the transcendental life which exceeds objective sciences such as economizing social science, or what Chris Thornhill calls ‘transcendent ways of questioning which are actually beyond its [empirical sociology’s] own inner means and limits’ – with the lives of the chronically economically unproductive: the lives of those of us in the global population who will never be able to earn a living. We can suggest that radically failing transcendental life (as theorized by Jaspers), and radically foundering vulnerable lives alike interrogate the limits of economic objectivity.

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