Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Apologia for Comparative Culture:
A Neophyte's Reflections on the Sixth Annual Multiple Perspectives on
Access, Inclusion, & Disability Conference at OSU

Jerome F. Shapiro, Ph.D.
751 West Fifth Street
Marysville, OH 43040-1025
Tel & Fax: 937-642-4633
E-mail: jfs@atomicbombcinema.com
URL: www.atomicbombcinema.com


Disability Studies is threatened by centrifugal forces that may pull it apart at the seams. As paradoxical as this may sound, the solution to maintaining Disability Studies as an independent and, indeed, coherent academic discipline is to re-contextualize Disability Studies within the broader trends in contemporary academe, the history of social movements in the USA, and the struggle for universal enfranchisement. To illustrate this point, I will: Draw connections between my own experiences with disabilities as a person, a student, an educator, and now a newcomer to Disability Studies; make comparisons to the now defunct Program in Comparative Culture at the University of California, Irvine; and, I will critique some presentations given at two recent Disability Studies conferences hosted by The Ohio State University (OSU). My purpose, however, is not to challenge these presenters' scholarship; rather, it is to illustrate the centrifugal forces that I see already at work within Disability Studies.

Keywords: Disability Studies, Social Movements, Academe

Disability as Personal Troubles

Disability issues are hardly new to me. I was designated "Learning Disabled" back when Jack LaLanne was telecast live in black and white. This appellation was, at least then if not now, a double-edged sword. Perhaps for the first time in contemporary history educational institutions were beginning to give children who learn differently the attention they deserved. The designation was also a branding - a stigma that, for example, kept me out of my junior high school's group counseling program for troubled youth. An outsider even to the outsiders.

Nor am I new to disability issues. In graduate school I served on a committee that helped establish statewide policy for the University of California. And, I testified on behalf of the University before a State Senate committee investigating disability issues.

But, I am new to Disability Studies. Partly out of choice. Partly out of chance.

My doctoral committee chairman once suggested that I write on disability issues, but while the flesh was willing, the spirit was weak. I just was not emotionally prepared for an undertaking that would bring me so close to home. Instead, I chose to spend the next decade and a half studying and writing about the more cheery subject of how people imagine the aftermath of the next nuclear war, a field in which I am still active. By chance, my research caught the eyes of Kyoto and Hiroshima Universities, and I spent 10 years teaching in a country where a white cane, wheelchair, guide dog, or hearing aid, in public is still worth commenting on - extraordinary on mainstream campuses, and virtually unheard of in the rarified atmospheres of the National Universities where I taught. As clichéd as it may sound, Japan is still a society where, for the most part, children who do poorly in school are largely thought to be lacking in samurai spirit or its contemporary equivalent. During the time I resided in Japan, Disability Studies blossomed in the USA, and I was quite literally out of the loop. Later, though, chance brought me to Ohio, where I began studying disability issues, or rather their dearth, within the library sciences. This, in turn, brought me to the Ohio State University (OSU) campus, where I met Steve Kuusisto, Scott Lissner, and Marian Lupo, who suggested I attend Disability Studies conferences. At the time of this writing I have attended two Disability Studies conferences: The Disability, Narrative, and the Law Conference, and the Sixth Annual Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion, & Disability Conference, both at OSU, and both within a few months of each other. A limited introduction at best.

I write, therefore, in the hope that the observations of a relative newcomer to a discipline can be of general value. At their best, such observations can help identify connections not seen or taken for granted by those steeped in the discipline. At their worst, such observations can be a reflection of how "outsiders" see the discipline. Either way, to survive in an age of increasingly scarce resources, small or newly established academic programs must be very image conscious because they rely on the kindness of administrators and others outside the discipline.

From experience in my doctoral program, I know this to be an incontrovertible fact.

The Academic Context

The program I received my doctorate from, The Program in Comparative Culture, at the University of California, Irvine, now rots in the landfill of academic history. The Program was the lovechild of a Romeo and Juliet like affair between academia and the late 1960s. With the growing demand for new courses to be taught, including the study of minority or "racial" and ethnic groups, the founding chancellor, Dan Aldrich, insisted, for "funding" reasons, that the various interest groups come together under one program. Rather than create a program that merely satisfied the administration, a group of maverick scholars overcame their differences to develop a unified approach to studying the Americas. To put this somewhat differently, a group of educators at Irvine developed a coherent and nuanced approach to engaging the philosophical paradox of the one or the many within the context of the American experience.

Comparative Culture sought to elucidate the vitality of individual cultural groups through comparative approaches that made apparent the tensions between dominant and non-dominant groups or institutions - all held together by the rigorous study of social theory and the expressive forms of culture. In an age when disciplinary boundaries were (and perhaps largely remain) sacrosanct, this interdisciplinary and comparative approach was nothing short of visionary. The program drew both faculty and students from the humanities, social sciences, the arts, and even the hard sciences. The program started in the English Department but negotiated a separation when, as one professor put it, "the English Department stopped speaking English." The program was on the ascendance and headed towards becoming an independent school within the University. Comparative Culture served the University well at a time of student unrest and demands for greater diversity in the university environment. Depending on your point of view, the administration was either meeting or merely placating these demands, but the program did not last too much beyond the periods of great student unrest. One could also reasonably argue that Comparative Culture had fulfilled its mission or simply that the time had come for it to make way for other projects. Be that as it may, Comparative Culture never won its independence or the support it deserved.

Stories abound. I, too, have stories. As the graduate students' representative, I attended a faculty meeting with then-Chancellor Jack W. Peltason, in which he expounded on the job of the university scholar: "Research, training the next generation of scholars, and collegiality." (For an author of text books, undergraduate education appeared strangely missing from the Chancellor's vocabulary.) The threat was barely implicit, the hostility between the faculty and the administration was palpable, and rumors of Comparative Culture's imminent demise were as commonplace as a California sunset.

The great irony of Comparative Culture's eventual demise is that it was foreshadowed by one of the founder's, and my committee chairman, own writings. In America's Quest for the Ideal Self, Peter Clecak argues that three themes run throughout American history (1983). These three themes are the pursuit of: Social justice, a community of like minded others, and self-fulfillment. Great periods of social development, or Movements, are marked by the coming together of these three themes and widespread agreement about their meaning. Such Movements, however, eventually break down.

Indeed, by the late 1980s, the demand for Civil Rights and social justice had been replaced by, to name but a few, African-American, Native American, Hispanic and/or Latino, Gay, Lesbian, Women's, Veteran's, Disabled, and, yes, even animal Rights. On campuses throughout the country, balkanization reached a fevered pitch. The demands were no longer for minority, ethnic, or American Studies programs, but Black, Hispanic, Gay, Women, Disability . . . Studies programs. At Irvine, ad hoc programs were formed, and suddenly professors of biochemistry were teaching the history of Hispanic-American culture. The consequence of such balkanization, in academe, is a decidedly narrower vision of the academic endeavor - the philosophical discourse that has allowed scholars in every field to share ideas for generations is displaced by gatekeeper-like vernaculars that limit the flow of ideas and foster a myopic sense of historical context. It has been pointed out to me, for example, that since at least Allan Bloom's (1987), The Closing of the American Mind, many authors have critiqued the failings of contemporary academe, including, most recently, Albert H. Soloway's (2006) Failed Grade: The Corporatization And Decline Of Higher Education. That is to say, the history of the struggle for universal enfranchisement as a context for understanding any given group is displaced by the celebratory history of one group or another. E Pluribus without the Unum.

This narrowing of academic and historic vision has served administrators well. It is far less expensive to support numerous small programs dispersed throughout the entire university, than to invest in and nurture a program of committed scholars. Allowing professors to indulge an occasional whim also allowed administrators to reinforce old disciplinary boundaries. At Irvine these developments provided, ironically, administrators with the leverage they needed to finally overcome the brokered compromise that was Comparative Culture's genesis. Comparative Culture was an embarrassing maverick that blocked the University from fulfilling its manifest destiny of, in Chancellor Peltason's words, becoming the: "Harvard of the West Coast." Comparative Culture had no place in this vision of Irvine's future, and the program died like Caesar - in committee. So much for diversity.

Disability as Issues of Social Structure

By now the reader is asking what all this has to do with Disability Studies or the Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion & Disability Conference. Just this: What happened to Comparative Culture is indicative of what happened throughout academe in the 1990s, of what is happening now, and what can happen to Disability Studies in the not too distant future. Indeed, while the conference panels I chose to attend, from among the concurrent sessions, reflect my own interests, there is compelling evidence that within Disability Studies there is already a narrowing of historical context and academic vision that is symptomatic of academic balkanization.

Because Remote Infrared Audible Signage (RIAS), which provides talking signs for people with low or no vision, seems like a technology that can be used effectively inside libraries, I decided to attend the presentation on the product. Much to my surprise, the presenter flatly stated that the technology's post-installation energy costs are so minimal that it is simply not an obstacle to adoption or even worthy of discussion. Perhaps. But, at the time of this conference oil experts were, and still are, saying that Peak Oil[i] has arrived or will arrive shortly, crude oil prices were at record highs (unadjusted for inflation, of course), and both environmentalists and strategic analysts were saying that gasoline prices need to double in order to wean consumers off fossil fuel. In such an economic context, disabilities advocates are unlikely to advance their agendas, however laudable, by unthinkingly ignoring the costs to the broader society. The RIAS presentation is, I grant, an extreme example of how Disabilities Studies can be disconnected from socio-historical realities, but the presentation exemplifies my argument.

At the opposite end of the extreme, Jihye Jeon's presentation on the history of disability rights in South Korea stands out, among all the scholarly presentations that I attended, for drawing connections to broader cultural and historical trends. That is to say, the presenter drew on the history of the Korean War, socio-cultural and religious norms, and the exigencies and conveniences of the political elite. More than anything else, her careful discussion of her personal experiences within this cultural history demonstrated a keen sensitivity to what C. Wright Mills calls the sociological imagination. That is to say, the "distinction . . . between 'the personal troubles of milieu' and 'the public issues of social structure'" (1959: 8). Most of the other presentations, that I attended, fell somewhere between these two extremes - of neglect versus attention to socio-historical contexts - and generally because they got bogged down in retellings of personal troubles, never engaging questions of social structure.

Two otherwise very fine, scholarly, close readings of texts exemplify this middle ground, or what we might call inattention to historical context. The first focused on a sign language interpreter's biography of one of her clients. The close reading excellently revealed the author's presumptions, prejudices, and sense of noblesse oblige toward deaf people and the non-Anglo other. The presenter also elucidated how the interpreter/biographer violated professional standards of confidentiality, and thereby put the illegal alien at risk of identification and deportation by la Migra. This sort of exposition of a text is, of course, one valid approach, and I will not fault the presenter. To my mind, however, merely analyzing the biography's rhetorical construction of personal troubles of milieu, ultimately, begs more questions than it answers. What I am arguing is, in other words, that in the context of Disability Studies, textual analysis should be understood not as an end to itself but as a necessary first step to the criticism of public issues of social structure. This is especially true of the presentation in question, for it suggested so many significant questions, such as, what is an institution's obligation (i.e., of the school that hired the interpreter) to its clients?

One possible strategy for using analysis to criticize issues of social structure is to take a comparative approach. We can, for instance, read this biography in the context of, say, Euro-American conquest and colonialism. Here, Bob Blauner's Internal Colonialism (1972) and Tzvetan Todorov's America's Conquest (1984) come easily to mind. Indeed, for, as the debate over immigration reform raged outside the conference hall, the presenter made a very strong point about the noted physician and writer, Oliver Sacks, having written a laudatory forward to the biography; and yet, when asked if Dr. Sacks' endorsement demanded a reexamination of his own works, the presenter demurred at the question. Here, contextualizing the biography within a neoconservative approach to immigration issues, say, Nathan Glazer's Clamor at the Gates, might have helped to tease out a more nuanced reading (1985). Dr. Sacks is, after all, an émigré, though from England, while the subject of the biography is from Latin America. The influence that Latin America has on virtually all aspects of life in the USA is undeniably significant, but our tie to England is undeniably deeper and covers more areas of language, law, morality, faith, and intellectual products. Dr. Sacks' role as a physician and his story of success in the USA, therefore, is not at all irrelevant to his endorsement of the biography, and begs not just for analysis but critical analysis. Alternatively, a more literary approach to the biography, focusing on the character of the biographer in her own narrative, might have been to compare the biography to Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, and other so-called capture narratives. Richard Slotkin has written on these narratives extensively in, Regeneration through Violence (1973). Comparative approaches have many advantages. Comparative approaches could, for instance, make this presentation a truly dynamic discussion of how ethnicity, class, culture, and immigration laws intersect at the crossroad of Disability Studies. And, a comparative approach has, I believe, a greater potential for advancing the development of Disability Studies and the cause of disability rights.

The other close textual reading looked at the memoirs of a blind man whose guide dog profoundly transformed his life. The first part of the analysis focused on the text itself and the author's heroic journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance. The second part of the analysis, however, brilliantly redirected the focus away from the text and onto the presenter. She described her own growing sophistication as a scholar when her thesis advisor pushed her to re-read the memoir. This time, she said, she began to see that the text was not as unproblematic as she had at first thought. Specifically, she began to question the author's motives for teaching his sighted wife to pretend to be blind so they could remain in a hotel that allows guide dogs but not pets (i.e., the wife's pet dog). Here, the presenter suggested that the author's use of negative stereotypes about blind people calls into question the validity and authenticity of the memoir itself. A challenging reading indeed; and, the presenter effectively used her own story of growing sophistication as a reader to elucidate a problematic text. Here, again, however, the presenter left me wondering how she could have connected the memoirist's personal troubles of milieu with the public issues of social structure.

A comparative approach, once again, can help us to expand upon this otherwise excellent presentation, and engage Mills' sociological imagination, by drawing connections between the memoir and other examples of the struggle for enfranchisement and self-actualization. We could, for example, contextualize the memoir within the critical literature on subversive posturing. By now it should be well understood that Black Americans have often exploited Anglo Americans' negative stereotypes, such as the lazy slave or worker, to subvert oppressive conditions. There is also a vibrant discussion of gay and lesbian mannerisms, as well as those of other marginalized groups. The Jewishness of comics, ranging from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen, Allen Sherman to Lenny Bruce, and Fanny Brice to Joan Rivers, is often a vehicle for subverting the "restricted" dominant culture that Jews have come up against. Should we expect the disabled community to be any less subversive? That is to say, should we not similarly expect disabled people to use the dominant culture's own prejudices to subvert institutionalized power, and gloat over the victory? Any one who doubts the subversive power of irony and humor might do well to read Steve Lipman's study, Laughter in Hell (1991), or any Gerald Vizenor novel of, what he calls, Postindian "survivance" (e.g., 2002). Posturing, mannerism, and identity are also, of course, responses to factors such as politics, money, and government entitlements, as in the cases of Hispanic/Latino census data, and fights over official recognition of Native American tribes fueled by the lucrative casino gambling on Reservations and what Vizenor refers to as the quantifications of blood. Some of Vizenor's many scholarly works also directly address posturing and mannerisms (e.g., 1994). Although I have not read the memoir that the presenter discussed, I cannot help but suspect that the offending chapter has an undercurrent of irony and humor, as well as symbolism and literary allusion. Are not dogs, after all, ubiquitous harbingers of heroic journey in the many expressive forms culture, including, say, Dante's The Divine Comedy (1321) and Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961)?

Google the terms: Charter, plane, dog, rescue, and New Orleans. If we had forgotten, Hurricane Katrina, the effects of which still dominated the news at the time of the conference, has reminded us of the extraordinary bond people have with their pets, especially dogs. Indeed, the very focus of the memoir, the presenter tells us, is on the transformative, nay, redemptive power of this bond. Thus, another productive approach might be to contextualize the memoir within the broader history of the human-canine relationship. Here, the works of pioneering psychologist Stanley Coren easily come to mind (e.g., 1998 and 2002). Coren argues that after millennia of breeding and cohabitation, canines and humans have a literal symbiotic bond that extends from personality to the genetic level. When the human-canine relationship is at its best, dogs are, Coren will insist, part of the human family. The subversive posturing of the memoir's author and his wife can, therefore, also be understood as a heroic attempt to maintain the integrity of their family in the face of institutional ignorance and hostility. I propose that the historical context of both subversive posturing and the canine-human relationship are of vital importance to understanding how disabled people relate to their dogs, other people, and social institutions.

As excellent as the above two presentations were, their focus on the personal troubles of milieu, to the exclusion of the public issues of social structure, is, I believe, symptomatic of centrifugal forces at work. The absence of what Mills calls the sociological imagination in so much of a Disability Studies conference leaves me deeply troubled about the future of the discipline.

Conclusion: Disability in the Academic Context

From my vantage point, the Sixth Annual Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion, & Disability Conference, was nothing short of marvelous. With the exception of the presentation on RAIS, I walked away from each session knowing far more than when I entered; I left each session invigorated; and, I left each session tingling with the excitement of being in an environment where I can relate intellectually and experientially with others. My praise, here, includes even the two presentations I have just criticized.

My intent has not been to critique others' scholarship. Rather, my critiques have been a means to an end; that is, a way of teasing out signs of both strengths and weaknesses in Disability Studies. The breadth and depth of conferences at OSU, alone, suggests vitality. I am concerned, nevertheless, that Disability Studies' potential for generating excellent scholarship and social change is at risk to the all-too-familiar academic pitfall: Disciplinary boundaries. Already within Disability Studies some scholars present their work as though the discipline exists sui generis, with no connections to broader Movements that have shaped societies and cultures. This will impede Disability Studies from making connections across disciplinary boundaries or building the broad social coalitions that are necessary to creating social justice, communities of likeminded others, and the conditions for self-fulfillment. The very desire for justice, community, and fulfillment, however, paradoxically may cause Disability Studies to disassemble.

Some will argue that people with disabilities first need to develop a sense of identity with others who have disabilities, before they can effectively function in the mainstream world. (Marxists might eschew my couching this argument in the discourse of the therapeutic culture and insist, instead, that it is a matter of the disabled community being transformed from a "class in itself" into a "class for itself," but here we need only acknowledge this dispute, not settle it.) I not only understand this argument, I too feel that need for a sense of group identity. But, it troubles me. At OSU's Disability, Narrative, and the Law Conference, one scholar talked about "tongue dancing" at annual Society for Disability Studies conferences (which I have yet to attend). She described these yearly dances as transcendent. Surrounded by other disabled persons, it is the only place where she could completely lose her self-consciousness and dance uninhibitedly. While a touching narrative of cherished community and momentary redemption, it is filled, nonetheless, with the pathos of isolation and difference. What she said left me wondering if disabled people are really so different that we cannot hope to dance with others, especially other disenfranchised and neglected peoples? If our sense of identity and community is so fragile, so narrowly defined, what chances are there that Disability Studies can survive the inevitable rise of internal factions that plague any reform movement, reactionary or progressive?

Many academic associations have been left dissembling if not sundered by the centrifugal forces inherent to contemporary academe. Like in a Greek tragedy, in 1992 the Asian Cinema Studies Society reached the apex of its drama then crashed and burned, never to arise out of its ashes - all in a matter of minutes. What happened was that, simply, the one person willing to serve as the Society's president, someone with impeccable credentials and ability, was cajoled into accepting the responsibility. But, no sooner did he accept then someone denounced him as being yet another white male at the helm of an organization studying non-white cultures. Political correctness is not the sole provenance of Americans. For many years I had been a member of the Japanese Association for American Studies. In 1994, however, the editorial board refused to publish my paper in the Associations' annual journal, saying it was their policy not to publish gaijin. When I protested, one of the editors actually threatened my wife. Some years later several high ranking Association members supported my nomination to serve on the American Studies Association's (ASA) International Committee. Much to my and my Japanese colleagues' chagrin, the then president of the ASA, who had just come out as a lesbian, told us, with obvious embarrassment, that "no white male will ever serve on that committee again." My protests that I wasn't a white male but a tenured professor of a prestigious Japanese National University were so futile I didn't even bother to play the Jew card. Meanwhile, my Japanese colleagues just stood there, literally, slack jawed and unable to speak.

There is no reason not to believe that, as Disability Studies grows and draws more money and credibility, the politics and financing of academia will fuel a culture of victimization and divide and spoil Disability Studies. That is to say, it is entirely possible that in a few years various caucuses will form, as they have in other associations, to advance their own narrow agendas. So, instead of drawing audiences from diverse backgrounds, eager to learn how others negotiate and criticize disabilities, the brilliant cross-fertilizing of scholarly ideas that currently takes place will come to an end and we will all begin preaching to the choir. In a not too distant future, tongue dancing may be a vague, nostalgic memory of the founders because the general membership will be too busy attending caucus meetings in order to advance their own careers instead of advancing the study of people with disabilities.

The only way to remain vital, to survive as anything more than just another turgid, nepotistic academic society is, metaphorically speaking, to teach people outside the discipline how to tongue dance, and have outsiders teach the tongue dancers how to boogie in their style. Disability Studies scholars have very compelling stories of personal troubles of milieu. If we use these stories as vehicles to discuss the broader issues of social structure that animate other peoples' lives, Disability Studies will continue to play a vital role in engendering justice, community, and personal fulfillment for everyone, not just a narrowly defined group. That is the principle of Universal Design, is it not? So if it is universal, why not share it with everyone? To share the visionary gift that Disability Studies currently has, it needs to resist the centrifugal forces that are just becoming symptomatic.


I am indebted to Peter Clecak and Joseph Jorgensen, Professors Emeriti of UCI, and friends, for sharing their memories of the history of Comparative Culture, and for their critical readings of this paper.


Blauner, B. (1972). Racial oppression in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Clecak, P. (1983). Americas quest for the ideal self: dissent and fulfillment in the 60s and 70s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Coren, S. (1998). Why we love the dogs we do: how to find the dog that matches your personality. New York: Free Press.

Coren, S. (2002). The pawprints of history: dogs and the course of human events. New York: Free Press.

Glazer, N., ed. (1985). Clamor at the gates: the new American immigration. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Lipman, S. (1991). Laughter in hell: the use of humor during the Holocaust. Northvale, N.J.: J. Aronson Inc.

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Slotkin, R. (1973). Regeneration through violence: the mythology of the American frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Soloway, A. H. (2006). Failed grade: the corporatization and decline of higher education. Salt Lake City, Utah: American Book Publishing.

Todorov, T. (1984). The conquest of America: the question of the other. New York: Harper & Row.

Vizenor, G. (1994). Manifest manners: postindian warriors of survivance. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Vizenor, G. (2002). Hotline healers: an almost Browne novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.


i Also known as Hubbert's Peak or Hubbert's Peak Theory. Marion King Hubbert postulated, in 1956, that there would be a peak to the entire world's production of oil. Received from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil, on August 20, 2006.
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Copyright (c) 2006 Jerome F. Shapiro

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