Platypus blog post

The Com­mit­tee for the Anthro­po­logy of Sci­ence, Tech­no­logy & Com­put­ing (CASTAC) and Rebekah Cul­pit kindly gave me the oppor­tun­ity to write a piece for Platy­pus (the CASTAC blog).

Titled Becom­ing More Cap­able”, the blog post sketches out some of the early ideas I’ve been think­ing with in con­nec­tion to dis/ability. Spe­cific­ally, it takes up a gen­er­at­ive (fem­in­ist inspired) pos­i­tion, that under­stands cap­ab­il­ity as col­lect­ively achieved, as a becoming-with’. The Platy­pus post is here, or see a longer un-edited ver­sion below.

We need to exer­cise the ima­gin­a­tion in order to elbow away at the con­di­tions of im/possibility.

Ingunn Moser & John Law (1999: 174)

What is it to be cap­able? How might we elbow away the con­di­tions that lim­it abil­ity, to become more cap­able?

In this short piece, I take ser­i­ously Rebekah’s invit­a­tion to account for dif­fer­ent ways of doing, act­ing, and liv­ing in the world”. The anthro­po­lo­gic­al imper­at­ive to take into account dif­fer­ence” and con­sider how objects inter­sect with social worlds, ima­gin­ar­ies and emer­gent social prac­tices” speaks to my ongo­ing efforts to engage, pro­duct­ively, with the long and troubled rela­tion­ship between tech­no­logy and dis/ability. Spe­cific­ally, it res­on­ates with work I’ve been under­tak­ing that asks what, if any­thing, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI) might offer the blind and vis­ion impaired.

What I want to do in the fol­low­ing is give some space to an idea of cap­ab­il­ity that I’ve found espe­cially gen­er­at­ive in rethink­ing this pair­ing of abil­ity and tech­no­logy, and in ask­ing what AI could be good for. I find works like that of Shree­harsh Kelkar’s (pub­lished on the CASTAC blog) to be valu­able here in crit­ic­ally examin­ing what AI intro­duces to the technso­cial assemblages of work, enter­tain­ment and leis­ure, and the bound­ar­ies enacted in/through such fig­ur­ings. Like Shree­harsh, I hes­it­ate to define, again, what counts as AI. Turn­ing things around, my con­cern is for a cap­ab­il­ity that is achieved with oth­ers, and what the pos­sib­il­ity of becom­ing cap­able togeth­er might mean for design­ing AI-with-dis/ability dif­fer­ently.

Think­ing with dis/ability, I’ve found myself return­ing to a mix­ture of writ­ings in dis­ab­il­ity stud­ies, sci­ence and tech­no­logy stud­ies (STS), and fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience. I’ve drawn par­tic­u­lar inspir­a­tion from Char­les Good­win and Ingunn Moser who have, in dif­fer­ent ways, provided examples of the care­ful study of prac­tice; both show a com­mit­ment to dis­rupt­ing those sed­i­men­ted dis­tri­bu­tions of power and agency” which seem to come too eas­ily when work­ing with dis/ability (Moser 2005: 667). Also, offer­ing a some­what tan­gen­tial per­spect­ive have been Don­na Haraway’s writ­ings and Vin­ciane Despret’s man­i­fold accounts of anim­als. I’m con­scious Har­away and Despret may seem pecu­li­ar ref­er­ence points with their shared con­cerns for speculative/science fic­tions and stor­ies with com­pan­ion spe­cies, and I’m sens­it­ive to what may appear to be the prob­lem­at­ic con­nec­tions I am draw­ing between such fab­u­la­tions’ and human dis/ability. How­ever, my inten­tion here is not to insist on dir­ect par­al­lels but to use the pro­duct­ive and uplift­ing works of Har­away and Despret to intro­duce a dif­fer­ent point of view and, I hope, new ques­tions around cap­ab­il­ity.

With this back­drop, the first thing to say is that the com­monly referred to defi­cit mod­el in dis­ab­il­ity stud­ies presents an espe­cially wor­ry­ing ver­sion of cap­ab­il­ity. This ver­sion places the indi­vidu­al along a spec­trum of abil­ity, where what he or she can or can­not do defines them as more or less cap­able. Thus, blind­ness and vis­ion impair­ment are indic­at­ive of an absence of abil­ity. Worse still, if being human is defined some­how by a set of pre-defined abil­it­ies that con­sti­tute a pro­to­typ­ic­al body’, then an absence of some sort or another con­jures up the image of an act­or who is less-than-human.

It’s this ver­sion of cap­ab­il­ity that Char­les Good­win troubles so con­vin­cingly in his care­ful ana­lys­is of the con­ver­sa­tions between an aphasic man, Chil, and his fam­ily. Chil has only three words in his vocab­u­lary, yes’, no’, and and’. In a form­al lin­guist­ics’, Good­win argues, Chil, with such a lim­ited rep­er­toire of words, might seem an atyp­ic­al, mar­gin­al fig­ure for the study of human lan­guage, a defect­ive act­or who can be eas­ily ignored without the­or­et­ic­al loss” (2004: 152). The psy­cho­lo­gic­al and neur­o­lo­gic­al struc­tures neces­sary for lin­guist­ic com­pet­ence are to be found” in the men­tal life” of the speak­er, and thus Chil is defined by a bod­ily absence, an indi­vidu­al defi­cit (2004: 153).

How­ever, in actu­al talk, Chil shows him­self to be a com­pet­ent and adept con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. Good­win details how com­mu­nic­at­ive fea­tures such as non­sense’ syl­lable use, pros­ody, inton­a­tion and turn tak­ing, and inter­ac­tion­al, embod­ied resources like gaze and pos­ture, are used by Chil to not just par­ti­cip­ate in ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al talk, but ini­ti­ate and dir­ect such talk him­self.

The trouble with the defi­cit mod­el of dis/ability then is it presents a ver­sion of cap­ab­il­ity that pre­sumes a nor­mal’ human, and a devi­ation or absence of some abil­ity, such as a lim­ited lex­icon, to be an indic­a­tion of a defect­ive act­or”. Yet this cap­tures noth­ing of the mutu­al accom­plish­ment of cap­ab­il­ity where such things as talk must be under­stood as an emer­ging phe­nom­ena, achieved in con­cert, with the involve­ment from oth­ers and a range of situ­ation­al resources in-action. You might say, with the defi­cit mod­el, cap­ab­il­ity is judged com­par­at­ively, always again­st some notion­al norm­at­ive fig­ure, always with an absence or lack of some­thing that detracts from a pure’ or genu­ine’ pres­ence in the world. No room is given for cap­ab­il­ity as it is achieved: how we—all of us—might just come to be cap­able in and through worlds strewn with con­tinu­it­ies and dis­con­tinu­it­ies’, and through good and bad pas­sages’ (Moser and Law 1999).

This takes me back to some­thing a field­work inform­ant, Jerry, told me. Com­par­ing how people take in inform­a­tion’ who have been blind from birth (as he has) with those who have recently lost their vis­ion, Jerry thought­fully com­ments:

We have a shared meth­od I sup­pose of tak­ing in inform­a­tion… It’s not… I don’t have to spend that time ima­gin­ing the visu­al switch… They refer to the world that they live in as being like liv­ing in a fog, you know, nothing’s very clear. But I nev­er had that feel­ing that my world is a fog. It’s the world.

I’m struck here by Jerry’s allu­sion to a world that is not forever placed in con­trast to another. The shared meth­od’ is about com­ing to be cap­able, col­lect­ively, about liv­ing a life not dom­in­ated by a loss, a fog, but by being/becoming cap­able in/with the world. Another inform­ant, Sarah, described some­thing sim­il­ar but in more con­crete terms:

I was quite young when I learnt to take oth­er cues. You know, people’s voice, what they sound like, how much they’re talk­ing, are they sud­denly really quiet [when] they’re nor­mally really chatty, that they’re just not quite them­selves. And quite often that’s an easy way. But! For example, the idea of catch­ing someone’s eye across the room, that’s a for­eign lan­guage to me. I just don’t even know what… I can in the­ory know what that means but in prac­tice even if your head is facing towards me I don’t know who you’re talk­ing to neces­sar­ily.

For Sarah, a visu­al cue—catching someone’s eye—is for­eign, is oth­er worldly; this could be used to high­light an absence in Sarah, the fog she lives in, a defi­cit in abil­ity. But to me it feels more genu­ine to say she has become cap­able in/with a world that is other-than-visual. Dis/ability and what renders one more or less cap­able is afforded through a con­tinu­al attun­e­ment in a world with oth­ers.

Jerry’s and Sarah’s reflections—that say so much to me about worlds that are other-than-sighted—bring to mind two related threads of work. One is a mov­ing series of works from the artist Sophie Calle. In pho­tos, videos and stor­ies, Calle has people pon­der on col­our (“La Couleur Aveugle”) and beau­ty (“Les Aveugles”), and first and last sights (“Pour La Dernière et Pour La Première Fois”). Not all of those people Calle col­lab­or­ates with are blind—some are see­ing things for the first time (“Voir la mer”)—but in each case the audi­ence is invited to rethink the rela­tions between per­son, exper­i­ence and sight, and ima­gine worlds that are more-than-sighted and act­ively brought into being.

A second related thread that reminds us of our act­ive pres­ence in the world is one which res­on­ates with the arts of fem­in­ist spec­u­lat­ive fab­u­la­tion” (Har­away 2016) and provides sig­ni­fic­antly dif­fer­ent ver­sions of cap­ab­il­ity to work with. In par­tic­u­lar, it brings to mind Don­na Haraway’s refig­ur­ings of human-machine entan­gle­ments and multi-species com­pan­ion­ship, and also Vin­ciane Despret’s lively stor­ies with anim­als. Har­away equips us with gen­er­at­ive ways of ima­gin­ing worlds act­ively brought into being, of com­pos­ites of act­ors (of all kinds) defined not by bounded util­it­ari­an indi­vidu­al­ism” (Har­away 2016), but by becoming-with each oth­er.

Becoming-with, not becom­ing, is the name of the game; becoming-with is how part­ners are, in Vin­ciane Despret’s terms, rendered cap­able. Onto­lo­gic­ally het­ero­gen­eous part­ners become who and what they are in rela­tion­al material-semiotic world­ing. Natures, cul­tures, sub­jects, and objects do not preex­ist their inter­twined world­ings.”

Like Har­away, I find this becoming-with’ takes on tre­mend­ous value through Despret’s work. Despret’s sens­it­iv­ity to ask­ing the right ques­tions’ of con­di­tions and act­ors of all kinds, and of their assemblages, open up the pos­sib­il­it­ies to so much more, to render us cap­able in so many more ways (Despret 2016). Just as Chil emerges as a com­pet­ent speak­er and his fam­ily treats him as someone who has some­thing to say,” (Good­win et al. 2002) Despret is inter­ested in the pos­sib­il­it­ies of inter­agency” (Despret 2013), of what actors-together might be rendered cap­able of. Despret’s project—if it can be referred to like this—is thus an expans­ive one. It is to per­petu­ally invite the pro­spect of new devices’, new prac­tices’, new con­di­tions’, new fab­u­la­tions’, and to invite the chance, the risk, even, of becom­ing more cap­able togeth­er.

It’s just such a ver­sion of cap­ab­il­ity that I believe gives us so much more to work with. Dis/ability is not con­strained by the ima­gined lim­its of what it is to be human, but rather made pos­sible by the con­di­tions act­ors (of all sorts) are act­ive in.

So, what if we—those of us who think and live with dis/ability—found ourselves able to work with cap­ab­il­ity along these lines? How might we approach dis/ability, and ima­gine new fig­ur­ings of tech­no­logy and dis/ability? This is not the place to spec­u­late on these ima­gin­ar­ies, but it does I hope show that a dif­fer­ent onus is put on emer­ging tech­no­lo­gies like AI. The ver­sions of tech­noso­cial fab­u­la­tions we might begin to tell here are not of the repair or replace­ment of vis­ion (or oth­er defi­cits in abil­ity) but of enlar­ging what and how we become-capable-with, become more cap­able.

Despret, Vin­ciane. 2016. What Would Anim­als Say If We Asked the Right Ques­tions? Lon­don: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press.

Despret, Vin­ciane. 2013. From secret agents to inter­agency. His­tory and The­ory, 52(4), 29–44.

Good­win, Char­les. 2004. A Com­pet­ent Speak­er Who Can’t Speak: The Social Life of Aphasia. Journ­al of Lin­guist­ic Anthro­po­logy 14(2): 151–170.

Good­win, Char­les, Good­win, Mar­jor­ie H., & Olsh­er, Dav­id. (2002). Pro­du­cing Sense with Non­sense Syl­lables: Turn and Sequence in Con­ver­sa­tions with a Man with Severe Aphasia. In Cecilia E. Ford, Bar­bara A. Fox, & Sandra A. Thompson (Eds.), The Lan­guage of Turn and Sequence. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press.

Har­away, Don­na J. 2016. Stay­ing With the Trouble: Mak­ing Kin in the Chthu­lu­cene. Lon­don: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press.

Moser, Ingunn. 2005. On becom­ing dis­abled and artic­u­lat­ing altern­at­ives. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies 19(6): 667–700.

Moser, Ingunn and Law, John. 1999. Good pas­sages, bad pas­sages. The Soci­olo­gic­al Review, 47(S1), 196–219.

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