Disability and The Inhuman

Presented at ‘The Inhuman Gaze and Perceiving Otherwise’, Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris, France, 6-9 June 2018.

Not for citation.


Inhuman can denote that something dehumanises, or that it lies outside the human. Merleau-Ponty calls inhuman an objectifying gaze that denudes another’s meaningfulness, and thereby precludes the understanding necessary for an ethical human relation. Initially, this seems to illuminate disability experience. One prevalent way of framing anomalous minds and bodies is a diagnostic medical gaze that reduces individuals to their ostensible pathology. Significantly, this modality operates beyond its jurisdiction to inform folk conceptions: to see bodily anomaly is often to see deviation from purportedly objective species normality. Here, then, disabled people are made doubly inhuman: first, by over-identification with their divergence from the human; second, by the attendant reduction to bodily properties that, in Merleau-Ponty’s sense, hampers ethical relations.

Calling this inhuman might imply that a corrective would recognise disabled people within a common humanity. However, where disability is concerned the concept of ‘the human’ is a poisoned chalice. Ideas about this entity—what it is, what it does, what it ought to do—are ubiquitous, saturating perception and action to organise everyday interactions. Despite such ubiquity, the human is not straightforwardly given; while it has an ordering function, the human itself requires organisation. It acquires coherence through practices that identify some attributes as properly human, and others as inhuman. A humanist approach may prove inapt to disability because disability is one axis along which this constitution occurs. Disability is often identified as an abnormality that entails dependency and vulnerability, thereby to diminish fundamental human features of autonomy and independence: the capacity to appropriate one’s body and act in the world. This delineation, that identifies purportedly negative characteristics with atypical bodies, contributes to the notion that ‘normal’ humans, at least in principle, are self-secure and independent. The human, then, is ambivalent for disabled people: while formally within its bounds, they also they fall outside it insofar as they exhibit dependency or vulnerability.

If disability is indeed bound up with articulation of the human, humanist resources are inadequate to ethical questions concerning bodies that overspill conventional human parameters. A human gaze is insufficient that takes the human as given. I instead recommend an inhuman gaze, where inhuman does not mean dehumanising, but rather outside or before the human. As not already orientated by—or that is, at least, disloyal to—the human, this can attend to those processes by which the human takes form (via organisation of bodies into proper and improper forms). In contradistinction to the aforementioned division between independence and dependency, I suggest that interdependency is instead pervasive, and that identification of independence with normality and dependency with anomaly is reductive for typical and atypical bodies alike (albeit with different effects). I will finally consider whether an inhuman gaze, by loosening the human’s metaphysical grip, might help to foster a space in which other modes of ethical relation become practicable.

Posted in Conference & Workshop Papers.

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