Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
A “bad” subject is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to the severely disabled, it’s easy to forget this fact. To become who we are, our theories of subject formation tell us, we must recognize one other by using our bodies in typical ways. A “bad” subject, Louis Althusser argued, is one that resists interpellation -- who doesn’t turn around when a policeman yells “Hey, you!” It is a lover, Elizabeth Povinelli tells us, or a child who doesn’t return our smile or gaze into our eyes. The price of this failure is high, for this process is reciprocal: if the other is bad, so are we. People who don’t respond predictably don’t qualify as good citizens of anyone’s social world.
This paper focuses on parents drawn to a communication system that has arisen in the face of this predicament. PODD promises to make "bad" subjects better by welcoming disabled people into an alternative community of sign use. Severely disabled people are supposed to learn PODD the same way babies learn language: through immersion. Typical speakers communicate with their disabled partners through books of icons. These disabled partners eventually use gestures to create utterances, which their typical partners voice on their behalf. In the end, the ethical dimensions of this process prove more important than anything these parents or their children might have to say. There are lessons here for every ethnographer. When we take difference seriously, what’s bad and what’s better can take surprising new forms.