Reckoning–13/20 March 2017

13/20 March 2017

Morning En Route to the Hospital

Snow wafts off the little lake
along route 66, momentarily encasing the car

in a trance of glitter

Live with your puny, vulnerable self
Live with her
~Maggie Nelson, Something Bright, Then Holes

The past two weeks have been consumed with close readings of several articles on Service Learning, especially Paul Kivel’s 2006 exploration of Social Service versus Social Change, and Christina Crosby’s memoir, A Body, Undone (New York University Press, 2016). I was intrigued and puzzled by much of what Kivel has to say. I do not disagree with his overall claim regarding interdependence and social change, but I do not see enough specifics here to push the conversation forward. I was deeply affected and intrigued by Crosby’s book, one I can see myself living with for some time to come. Giving an account of oneself, of one’s grief and living on after “catastrophic injury,” without apology or narratives of overcoming demands much of readers. This memoir, one of the two best I have read in the past year, has its own debilitating effects.


Paul Kivel’s argument in “Social Service or Social Change?” is simple:

Ruling class policies, including development of the non-profit sector and support for social services, have led to the co-optation of substantial numbers of well-intentioned people. In this group I include all of us whose intention is to “help” people at the bottom of the [economic] pyramid, but whose work, in practice, helps perpetuate their inability to change the circumstances which force them to need this assistance to survive the conditions of our society in the first place. Ultimately, our efforts end up benefiting the ruling class by actively supporting the current exploitative structure. Rather than helping others, we need to develop ways to work together to create community power.

Social services that seek to aid those in need are doing more harm than good in the long run. What we need is a structural critique and a social practice informed by that structural critique. In addition to changing the situations of those immediately before us, we need to change the world, together.

Kivel continues later in the article to outline the need for “a long-term struggle for a redistribution of wealth and power,” involving “people identifying common goals, figuring out how to work together and support one another, and coming up with strategies for forcing organizational and institutional change.” The point, according to Kivel, is that we need to act together to build community. Those who are most directly affected by social change need to be organizers, decision makers, and stake holders in the process from the start. Those who come from the “outside” must work first to help people come together in this community.

In the penultimate paragraph, Kivel asserts, “Social change grows out of people understanding themselves to be interdependent, sharing common needs, goals, and interests” and that the best “aid” we can provide is helping people “come together for increased consciousness, resource sharing, and mobilization.”

While I am intellectually, politically, and ethically in agreement with Kivel’s claims, I wonder still about the specifics of his mandate here. While he can point toward the particular problems of social service, he does not specify the exact practices and techniques that might be involved in his vision of social change. I can absolutely see the diagnosis he presents, but I do not find the recommended course of treatment beyond his reconceptualization.

Perhaps, in the eleven years that have passed since the article was published, the scene of the public sphere already has changed dramatically enough and discourse regarding participation and engagement has already shifted significantly enough to mark the effects of such arguments already. Perhaps we have already pushed for much of what Kivel proposes, in other words.

Even so, talk of community without considering both the positive and negative articulations of the concept remains dangerous at best. Community may be founded on aspects of “togetherness,” of what we share in common, but it also always already formed though “exclusion” as well, on what separates us. And, both formulations recall the violence that makes community possible–the violence of sameness and the violence of difference, the violence of proximity and the violence of distance. How we address that fundamental violence of community remains a key question for those of us interested in social change.


In the penultimate chapter of A Body, Undone: Living on After Great Pain–her memoir of life, intimacy, embodiment, and community after a bicycle accident smashed her face, broke her neck, and instantly paralyzed her–Christina Crosby addresses the question of what it is she is writing, the question of genre as it infects disability memoir. On pages 187-88, she explains how much writers and readers associate memoirs (perhaps especially disability memoirs) with realism. Memoirs are expected to be realist in their presentation:

Many accounts of living with a disabling incapacity begin at the beginning–the discovery at birth of a supposed “defect,” the account of genetic anomaly, genetic test, or catastrophic accident. The narrative develops chronologically after the advent of incapacity, all the while implicitly articulating events into a consequential order. Moving through time is simultaneously moving through space, of course, and that space is three-dimensional, oriented by a single vanishing point in the distance toward which the narrative moves as it develops. You conjure this space in your imagination as you read, and discover the common horizon that organizes the trajectories of all the characters, including yourself as you become absorbed in the story. You enter into the scenes and follow the incapacitated person as she seeks to regain lost abilities or discover new ones, and sympathize when she must persevere through setbacks and disappointments. Authors and audience alike rely on common sense, and the story moves sequentially from beginning to end.

Then, a page later, she continues with the rub of her analysis, that this realist expectation creates an arc toward a “satisfying sense of conclusion”:

Narratives of disability may be grim at some points, but they almost always move toward a satisfying conclusion of lessons learned and life recalibrated to accommodate, even celebrate, a new way of being in the world.

And yet, she warns,

Nothing of the sort is happening here, because I can’t resolve the intractable difficulties of disabling incapacity, any more than I can suggest that everything will be (more or less) okay. Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone, and living some part of her life in another dimension, under a different dispensation than that of realist representation.

“Even the most accomplished cripple you can imagine is undone…” This line alone separates Crosby’s memoir from others. Through this admission that living on and working through, the two strategies so often invoked in response to trauma, are not so very different after all, Crosby challenges all the models we rely on to address dis/ability–the medical model, the social model, the charity model, the empowerment model, and many others. Living on after great pain is bewildering; it means being led astray, into the wilds at every step of the way. While you may recall a trajectory and a desire otherwise than the wilderness of your existence, it remains otherwise, beyond:

I’m living a life beyond reason, even if I have invoked some of the stabilizing conventions of realism in this narrative. Those conventions are the ones I know best, but profound neurological damage actually feels to me more like a horror story, a literary genre governed not by rational exposition but rather by affective intensification and bewilderment.

Come the fall of 2017, I am planning to teach a course on disability memoir. Crosby’s will hold a place of some significance on the syllabus for that course.


Finally, throughout this month, I am awaiting the release of Free Lunch Society’s latest film, Come Come Basic Income. For now, here is the trailer:

Be well,
Brian Bergen-Aurand


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