restricted access Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability / Jim Ferris
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Aesthetic Distance & the Fiction of Disability jim ferris Disability obscures the blurry lines that separate ‹ction and art from real life. Is disability “‹ctional,” or is it “real”? Social models of disability contend that the oppression that accompanies disability is entirely a social construction—that the social implications of disability are made things that impose an unreal set of assumptions, interpretations, expectations, and restrictions on the lives of disabled and nondisabled people alike. Impairments do have real impact on how disabled people move through the world. But the negative social consequences that are larded on top of those functional limitations can claim their all-too-present reality only because too much of the dominant nondisabled world believes in the arti‹ce called disability. Awareness of ‹ctionality is an essential component of aesthetic distance, a concept that provides some explanation for how we know the difference between what happens on the stage, for example, and real life. This is, of course, quite different from an awareness of the ‹ctionality of disability. But disabled performers, through the management of aesthetic distance, may be able to expose the ‹ction of disability, transforming the closed look of the stare into a more open look that is both receptive and creative. We can see this management of distance at work by looking at the public performance of a group of visibly disabled performers. Do You Sleep in That Thing? staged at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in 1992, 56 explored a number of disability issues with a cast of performers with readily apparent physical impairments. The production featured solo and group performances of poetry, personal narrative, essays, ‹ction, and even a cartoon . Some of the texts performed related speci‹cally to experiences of impairment and disability; others did not. As director, I assembled a pool of potential texts for performance but asked the performers to choose which ones to stage. Some performers generated their own texts; others brought in pieces that were not in the original pool. A key tension in the show had to do with the degree to which it would mark disability as difference as opposed to stressing the commonalities of the human experience that we all share. Stress on differences is likely to increase the perception of distance, especially for nondisabled audiences. DYS called upon audiences to recognize that differences—in bodies, treatment , and experiences, for example—do not change our common humanity , and do not keep us from common needs, desires, goals, yearnings, and frustrations. But the ‹fteen performances that made up DYS tended to focus on either difference or commonality. Simply put, the performers could choose to actively remind the audience of their physical difference, could direct attention to the body and mark that difference clearly. Or they could choose not to, and allow, if not request, the audience to overlook their bodily faux pas to focus on what they shared. This essay explores aesthetic distance as a means of calibrating the relationship between commonalities and difference. To accomplish this, we will consider a few key performances, which situated themselves in different positions along this continuum. Distance—both physical and emotional—is a factor in any relationship between people. The concept of aesthetic distance can illuminate the negotiations and implications involved in the management of physical space and interpersonal distance and show ways disabled people can manage their own performances to rede‹ne the stare and present themselves as real people while not minimizing their experiences of oppression. Aesthetic distance is a crucial element in consideration of disability and aesthetics. As performance scholar Beverly Whitaker Long explains, scholars have long been discussing ideas related to “distance,”1 but the ‹rst and perhaps most in›uential formulation of the concept appeared in 1912 in Edward Bullough’s essay “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle.” “Distance is a factor in all art,” Bullough argued (90), and he contended that art is fundamentally different from (though related to) reality. For Bullough, distance involves a detachment from practical needs and motives and from the “reality” of portrayed events—what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”—which allows the audience an imaginative involvement with the art. In Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics Aesthetic Distance and the Fiction of Disability 57 of Audience Response, Daphna Ben Chaim adduces not only Bullough but also Sartre, Brecht, and ‹lm theorist Christian Metz to base this practical detachment in an awareness of ‹ctionality, the recognition essential to the theatrical experience, that what happens...