The Limits of Vision and Speech
SHOWING AND TELLING
Simply put, diagnosis wields immense power. It can provide us access to vital medical technology or shame us, reveal a path toward less pain or get us locked up. It opens doors and slams them shut.[i]
—Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure
This project is now entering its final stages as we turn to researching the final show of this tripartite exhibition. Unlike Ill at Ease and Three Acts, Three Scenes, which have already been researched, hung, and completed, this final phase is still under development in the research phase. The idea that this would be a three-part exhibition was realized early on in the process, shortly before Ill at Ease went on view in the spring of 2017. For the final component, we want to focus on an aspect that relates to both illness and care, but also could exist as a stand-alone research-curation project. Like Three Acts, Three Scenes, the final exhibition will have a deconstructive methodology focusing on the limitations of diagnosis. In particular, we are interested in bringing together works that draw attention to the limits of diagnostic processes. That is to say that as diagnosis correlates to observation and the determination of maladies, we want this final aspect of our project to consider the ways that all forms of observation and determination are inherently subjective and inter-relational. In other words, we are interested in exploring the limits of diagnostic methodologies and dwelling on what remains in excess of what can be seen, heard, or observed in the body or mind of another. Furthermore, when diagnosis is used in concert with cure, it becomes differentially yoked to class. As Leonard David notes, “the possibility does exist of cures for many impairments that now define a group we call ‘people with disabilities.’ We must recall though, that cures will of course only be available to people with means in wealthy countries.”[ii] While we are not interested in upending the value, need, or capacity of the diagnostic process, as the field of disability studies has pointed out, there is a benefit too of trying to think past the limitations of categorical and definitional diagnoses.
In his most recent book Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, disability and LGBTQ activist Eli Clare contends with the issue of cure, arguing that in the pursuit of cure, violence is often enacted. Related to cure, for Clare, is the issue of diagnosis. As quoted in the epigraph, Clare has an ambivalent stance on diagnosis, conceding that it has necessary benefits just as these benefits come with potential or actual consequences. In his typical prosaic analysis, Clare delineates what diagnosis does in an eloquent paragraph worth quoting in its entirety:
Diagnosis names the conditions in our body-minds, charts the connections between them. It holds knowledge. It organizes visceral realities. It draws borders and boundaries, separating fluid in the lungs from high blood pressure, ulcers from kidney stones, declaring anxiety attacks distinct from heart attacks, post-traumatic stress disconnected from depression. It legitimizes some pain as real; it identifies other pain as psychosomatic or malingering. It reveals little about the power of these borders and boundaries. Through its technology–x-rays, MRIs, blood draws, EKGs, CAT scans–diagnosis transforms our three-dimensional body-minds into two-dimensional graphs and charts, images on light boards, symptoms in databases, words on paper. It holds history and creates baselines. It predicts the future and shapes all sorts of decisions. It unleashes political and cultural forces. At its best, diagnosis affirms our distress, orients us to what’s happening in our body-minds, helps make meaning out of chaotic visceral experiences.[iii]
As Clare rightfully points out, diagnosis is intimately tethered to the technologies and processes that promise to make the body and the mind legible for analysis and interpretation. Recognizing that “diagnosis rarely stays at its best,” Clare, who is a trans man living with cerebral palsy, has many justifiable reasons and lived experiences that warrant his skepticism for both the diagnostic process and the rhetoric of cure that follows.[iv] As he has experienced it, and as he has witnessed others go through it’s torturous process, he points out: “It is brandished as authority, our body-minds band to match diagnostic criteria rather than vice versa.”[v] Even as Claire is critical of diagnosis and cure, he grapples with the spaces and situations within which his rhetoric might not fit, realizing that what cure, and perhaps even diagnosis, mean to him might not be the same for someone else going through illness, disease, or disability.
Rather than dismantling or simply affirming diagnosis, we want to craft a curatorial project that delves into the complications of this process, which can be as fraught as it is life-saving. This means that even though we come to that table with our own ideas about, and experiences with, the themes we want to focus on, and while this process requires research and investigation prior to becoming public, we still aspire to the research-curation format that allows for people who make the artwork we incorporate, come to the exhibition, read the catalog, or engage with this project’s website, to bring their own ideas to bear on the project. And, more importantly, draw their own conclusions about diagnosis. Diagnosis also extends far beyond the medical field, gaining rhetorical traction in the cultural and political arenas. From popular psychology to conversations about national borders, diagnosis figures as a key rhetorical device. For example, writer and psychologist Nigel Barber, in a blog post for Psychology Today, notes that even though “[p]rofessional psychiatrists and psychotherapists are loath to go on record saying that Trump has a psychiatric disorder on the premise that one cannot give a diagnosis without an office visit…the DSM-5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5thedition] is written so clearly, and so simply, that the diagnosis [of Trump’s Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)] is transparent.”[vi] He continues to list nine of the DSM-5 symptoms associated with NPD, including “1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment by others” and “2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.,” concluding that while Trump does not fit all of the criteria of the disorder, he does present enough of them to be diagnosed with NPD.[vii] Moving from this diagnostic conclusion, Barber contends that “Narcissists are difficult to deal with, whether as friends or as politicians. They do not feel the need to build consensus, which is why most are screened out by democratic systems of government.”[viii] Whether one agrees or disagrees with this assessment notwithstanding, what is of relevance here is how a medical diagnosis made through observation from afar is leveraged to make claims about the political environment.
This is not without historical precedent, especially in American immigration policies forged at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his important discussion on the interrelations of immigration, disability, and race, disability studies scholar Jay Timothy Dolmage maps out the ways that Ellis Island was a “rhetorical space,” a term he borrows from Roxanne Mountford, because “power travels through Ellis Island” and “Ellis Island, as a space and as an idea, structures and shapes power.”[ix] As a site where immigrants were subjected to diagnostic scrutiny, he discusses how immigration offers used the rhetorical space of Ellis Island to decide who could or could not immigrate to the United States based off of quick “medical glances” that lead to “snapshot diagnoses.”[x] Dolmage explains, “The social processing that Ellis Island engendered was all about identifying and sometimes manufacturing abnormal bodies: these elements are out of place; these bodies are disordered. Ellis Island created a physical space in which abnormality could be arrested or deposited.”[xi] This lead to the production of difference as negative and excludable, naturalizing the need—in eugenic terms—to exclude certain bodies from the nation-state and producing a conflation of disability and race that marked some as undesirable or disqualified.[xii] As Dolmage makes clear, diagnosis was not used just to lead to treatment, it was leveraged to produce normalized exclusions from the social and political body. This has had lasting effects on American conceptions of race and disability, providing an apparatus for anyone to quickly assess someone else’s worth based on external and observable features. Dolmage concludes, “Whether or not this outcome was desired, Ellis Island helped to strengthen or validate this propensity for body-reading in everyone.”[xiii]
As our citational practice suggests, we are looking to include projects that place a strong and complicated emphasis on the position of disability in the diagnostic process. At the same time, we are looking for work that aims to thematize what remains in excess and unknowable at the limits of sight and touch. This article is now another platform for us to interact with people on these topics. Fleming has designed the final portion of the website to be open to your responses. While we research this final phase of the show, we want to hear from you using the comment box below this essay. Tell us your thoughts on diagnosis. What does it mean to you? How have you experienced the process of diagnosis? What has diagnosis affirmed and what has it left feeling unsatisfied?
Returning to Dolmage’s definition of rhetorical space, but moving beyond the disciplinary measures of Ellis Island, we see our practice of curation as a form of rhetorical space praxis. By creating exhibitions, we as curators can never make totally invisible or inoperable the influence we bring to the exhibition through the ways that we present information, art, and ideas. Nonetheless, by knitting together curatorial projects that deconstruct and consider small topics from myriad perspectives, we see our practice as creating spaces for critical thinking, ceding control of the “final” meaning back to the people who come to see them. This works especially well for us as co-curators as there is a constant exchange of ideas. Fleming might propose a work to consider that Moynihan had not considered working for the exhibition, and vice versa. It challenges us to think through the questions our exhibitions pose in such new ways that we find ourselves always challenging our own assumptions. Thus, as rhetorical spaces, we see our exhibitions as fostering this type of reflective inquiry where viewers, artists, or even people who read the catalog without ever visiting the show can formulate their own conclusions. This is not to state that we do not have our own goals and politics in the process. We do, but we really want to position our claims alongside other interpretations and perspectives. At its best, this is what art does: it provides ways to consider something differently, thinking through an idea, form, or topic visually and materially. Ill at Ease: Dis-ease in Art began this project, starting with disease as it becomes intertwined with people and spaces. Three Acts, Three Scenes: Your Care, My Care, Careful Care explored what care means as a word an action. In an ironic flip of medical temporality, our final project in this series, Showing and Telling: The Limits of Vision and Speech, ends on diagnosis, typically, the starting point connecting pathology to cure. Curative time, as explained by disability studies scholar Alison Kafer, is animated by a series of questions: “Were you born that way? How much longer do you have to live this way? How long before they invent the cure? How long will a cure take? How soon before you recover?”[xiv] All of these questions posit ends, they seek conclusions to mark things as “over and done.” In contrast, we want to dwell on the questions our research-curation praxis posits, forever finding new ways to think about how illness, care, diagnosis, or any other thematic question reverberates and changes over time. That is to say, we always want to find ease in dis-ease, and dis-ease in what comes with ease.
[i]Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 41.
[ii]Leonard David, Bending over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism & Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 24.
[iii]Clare, Brilliant Imperfection, 41.
[vi]Nigel Barber, “Does Trump Suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?” Psychology Today, published August 10, 2016, accessed June 27, 2019,
[ix]Jay Timothy Dolmage, Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018), 9.
[xiv]Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), 28.
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