Strolling into Imaginaries: When the Constitution of Space Produces Disabled Bodies



The Imaginary and Spatiality ///

My body is seen as disabled.
My body is not an assigned role.
My body is not a silent voice.
My body is not a fiction.
My body is real.
My body is sometimes feminine.
My body is lesbian.
My body is free.
My body is in love.
My body is alive.
My body is a dancer.
And, in front of you, who look at me, my body strolls and dances,
In the space, among you, with you.
I am not a dead image, you know?
I stroll with my wheelchair in the street, and feel that my presence in public space is not obvious. Stairs in front of buildings, high pavements, narrow doors; everything makes me feel bad, and out of place. My presence in public space is unexpected; I have to explain myself. I feel like a foreign object, an extraneous body, alien to social spaces, alien to the human community. Everything tells me: “You cannot enter. You are not welcome. You have not been imagined among us, so how can you be among us?” I am not able to enter. I am not allowed to enter. In these situations, my abilities are defined by the space around me. My rights are defined by the space around me. It’s not my body that represent an obstacle to my movement; rather, it’s the spaces I am in. My body is not disabled in a vacuum; a set of stairs in the absence of an elevator is what hinders my movement. A door which has to be pulled, instead of sliding or being pushed, makes me unable to enter a space on my own. Gradually, this relation between space and bodies adds up to a tacit segregation: my disabled body is stripped of its rights because of the constitution of spaces. Spatiality and architecture impose an order on bodies, create hierarchies between and within them, stipulating which places each is able or allowed to be in. We can consider spatiality a reflection of dominant relations, but it produces domination too.

The collective imaginary is structured by dominant relations. There are bodies that matter, and there are others that do not. Some bodies are more present in this imaginary than others; my disabled body is not. Consequently, my presence in public is somewhat of an impossibility. My presence is erased from the collective imaginary, and subsequently erased from the street. There is an important relation between the imaginary and spatiality. A certain manner of thinking about bodies determines a certain manner of thinking about and making spaces, since spaces are made for bodies. However, we can also say that spatiality in turn produces imaginaries about bodies. It is often assumed that I have no regular social life, because disabled bodies are so rarely seen in the outside world. But does being disabled really prevent me from having a social life? Or could it be because of the poorly adapted spaces outside that my movements and presence there are limited? Is it not rather the very constitution of spatiality that produces this fiction of the disabled person without a social life?

We could say that this representation of the disabled person — as someone who lacks a regular social life — is an imaginary body. But this fictional body gradually erases disabled bodies as they actually are. Some of these representations, which are more dominant than others, are at least marginally based in reality, which often creates a confusion between the imaginary and the real: similar to a trompe-l’oeil, they determine ways of looking at real bodies. What is imagined about bodies becomes their truth and reality. Here, we note a paradox: dominant fictional bodies are considered more legitimate than real bodies, and serve as the basis upon which norms and practices are determined. These fictional bodies reflect the hierarchies and relations of domination between bodies. In social space, bodies are described in certain manners: there are hegemonic manners of perceiving and describing bodies, and there are hegemonic fictional bodies, which we call “corporal scripts.” For example, female bodies are often described as mothers or sexual objects: they are configured as people who stays indoors, which leads to particularly violent interactions when women make use of public space. Their right to be present is continually undermined by the attitudes and behaviors of men. We note that the same logic surrounds disabled bodies: scripts about these bodies determine the behaviors toward and interactions with them.

Therefore, we are led to conclude that spatiality and architecture actually contribute to creating these fictional bodies, and in turn their corresponding corporal scripts. Many institutions reproduce and present these corporal scripts to the social world. We will call these institutions “technologies of the body.” This notion refers to Teresa De Lauretis’s concept of “the technologies of gender” (1987), which are responsible for constructing hegemonic representations of femininity and masculinity by various technologies and modes of discourse. Indeed, the manner in which a space is constituted can reproduce or even construct certain images of bodies by hampering their movements, assigning them particular roles, and determining their right to be present in public places.

No Anger Funambulist (1)
“Regrets of Freedom: And, in front of you, who are looking at me, my body strolls and dance.” / Artwork by No Anger (2018).

At the Theater of Bodies ///

In Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (2014), Paul B. Preciado describes the architecture of Playboy Magazine, in particular the house of the magazine’s creator: this was an extravagant manor filled with designed furniture, rotative bed, transparent swimming pool and cameras: everything served to set the scene of the heterosexuality of the single man. Preciado shows how the architecture and construction of a space can contribute to dramatizing heterosexuality. We can draw the same conclusion about ableism.s This idea of dramatizing can be used to speak about a more general issue: the presence (or not) of bodies in the street determines the manners of seeing and showing those bodies. Streets (and all public spaces) are a theater where bodies are shown in a certain role, where some are allowed onstage and others have to stay in the background. For example, when I hold my girlfriend’s hand on the sidewalk, people cannot fathom that she is my girlfriend. At best, strangers will refer to her as my friend. At worst, they’ll call her my teacher. My love and my desires have to be invisible, and my body too. A role is assigned to me by heterosexist and ableist logics. I don’t have a right to be seen. I am not allowed to show my body onstage. I am not even imagined on this stage, in the great theater of bodies. This imaginary determines the right of bodies to be present and visible, and in turn, this manner of presenting bodies reinforces the imaginaries about those bodies. The presence of my disabled body is not expected in public spaces, which makes me feel like I have no right to be there. My body is an exception that should not be present. In the street, people look at me inquisitively. They look at my body with surprise, curiosity, or condescendence. My presence is continually questioned by people’s looks and words. The question often arises: “Why are you as you are?” What I hear is: “Why are you here?” As I my presence has not been imagined in public spaces, I seem awkward, and have to explain my body, my existence. I am expected to be elsewhere, in other spaces, specialized for my special body. I have to be inside; I have to hide. But perhaps it’s not my body that is special — perhaps the specialized spaces where I am supposed to be locked away, circumscribed, and hidden are creating the narrative about my body being abnormal, exceptional, and special. The dominant narrative about bodies informs the organization of space, which then in turn manufactures that narrative.

But I am not invisible. I am not silent. I have a body. I have a voice. A voice that can sing or cry. A body that is alive and free. I want to liberate myself from the chains of an imaginary that locks me down and erases me from public spaces. I refuse its violence, which reduces me, absorbs me into the artificial costumes that I have to wear. The violence of this imaginary hurts bodies; my body. I want my space on stage, in front of your eyes. I want you see me, in the manner that I decide. Now, on stage, I am going to dance. Look at my feet and my arms, my legs and my hands, my face and my back. Look at me turning, jumping, laying down, and rising up. Look at me. Look at my body that appears, dissolving the images that, an instant before, erase me. Look at me wearing a grey sadness, a blue joy, a glittering love, a luminous sorrow. Look at my body wearing shades of hope and despair. Look at me. It’s me, not an image. You learned the image. I learned the image. I learned to feel shame for my body. I learned the need to hide myself, to want to be invisible. Now I have to forget, and you have to forget too. You and I have to forget that some bodies aren’t supposed to matter, that it’s alright for them to be left out of the imaginary to make more room for others in the great theater of bodies.

No Anger Funambulist (2)
“The Conquest of Cities: Look at my body that appears, dissolving the images that, an instant before, erased me.” / Artwork by No Anger (2018).

The Issue of Accessibility: Between Erasures and “Re-presencing” ///

Making spaces accessible to disabled bodies can make disabled people feel like they have a right to be present in public spaces. But if this accessibility is based on a preconceived idea of what a disabled body is, it may end up reproducing the dominant imaginary and creating more erasures.

Accessible spaces are often made for disabled people, but rarely with them. This approach to accessibility often utilizes abstract norms that are based on an imaginary about disabled bodies, which in turn mask the various realities of such bodies. Spaces may seem accessible to “the disabled body,” but not necessarily to my disabled body. The architectural norms of accessibility are founded in an essentialist logic, which values the image of a disabled body more than the reality.

To illustrate this idea, I’ll share my own experience: for the past six years, I have been living in a university residential building in Lyon, France. Last year, the administration decided to renovate three apartments in the building, including mine, to make them more accessible, but without ever arranging a meeting between the architects and the disabled tenants of these apartments. At the end of the “upgrades,” I discovered that my apartment had been outfitted with a giant bathroom. I asked the administration: “What have you made this giant bathroom for?” They answered: “To enable you to enter your bathroom in your wheelchair.” This response characterizes the simplistic way in which the disabled body’s daily existence is imagined: it is seen as perpetually stuck in its wheelchair. My disabled neighbor and I later talked about the renovations, and we noted that, for obvious reasons, we never shower in our electric wheelchairs; we never even enter our bathrooms in our wheelchairs, the tires of which are dirty from rolling in the streets. To enter our bathrooms, we walk a bit, and to bathe, we use a bath lift.

This example shows how important the role of the imaginary is in constituting the norms of accessibility through which “accessible” spaces are constructed. Accessibility for the disabled body, without the active participation of disabled bodies, is not a rational or efficient metric, since it leads to supplementary expenses to readapt the maladapted adaptation. This notion of accessibility is based on an idea of what a disabled body is, what it has to be, and how it has to live. Through architectural constructions, the corporal scripts about disabled bodies are reproduced and reinforced, masking the disabled bodies as they are.

These issues around spatial accessibility lead us to question the concept of inclusion. This fashionable term can itself be a source of violence when it implies that people who are to be included will have to conform themselves to preconceived models and roles. Their presence in public spaces is always conditioned by the dominant image of what their role is supposed be. This assimilative conception of inclusion creates a sort of negation of their presence, by making a role and a place for these persons, but not with them.

Rather than the term “inclusion,” perhaps we should privilege the notion of “re-presencing.” The first time I encountered this idea was in a text by Paola Bacchetta, “La Fièvre des Archives #3 — Les Forces Transformatives d’Archives des Queers Racisé.e.s” (“Archive Fever #3: The Transformative Forces of Queers of Color’s Archives,” Friction Magazine, 2018), about LGBTQIA+ archives. Dealing with the absence of queer people of color from the archives, as well as from our memories, Bacchetta advocates for “re-presencing” them. Different from representation as a portrayal and as a mandate — both of which end up masking the subaltern subject — re-presencing does not speak about certain people, but instead lets them speak. In the context of the archives, this means perpetually redefining what matters, and opening new spaces to make these presences possible and able to multiply. I propose to conceptualize spatial re-presencing as an assurance for the presence of disabled bodies. Since I show the important relation between the imaginary and space, I advocate for re-presencing as a perpetual redefinition of the imaginary about disabled bodies by designing spaces with the participation of real disabled bodies. Space can never be made accessible to an imaginary disabled body, but it must become accessible to real disabled bodies. Spatiality and architecture are the imaginary forces that assign roles to real bodies and determine their right to be present in public spaces.