Disability in French and Francophone Worlds
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Disability in French and Francophone Worlds

Les Têtes à Papineau (1981) by Jacques Godbout is an ironic allegorical rejoinder to the failure of the 1980 referendum that would have afforded sovereignty-association status to Quebec. Inspired by the adage, cela ne prend pas la tête à Papineau, or, “It doesn’t take a genius,” this rambunctious narrative chronicles the lives and times of François and Charles, twins conjoined at the neck who sustain each other physiologically—each coordinating with the other even to breathe—but speak primarily French and English, respectively. They grow up in relative harmony despite markedly different personalities and pursuits, their “monstrosity” affording economic and functional advantages that propel them through the stock experiences of childhood lived with disability in North America—regular press coverage, a biography, product sponsorships, and even mythical status in faraway lands. They are able to handle a busy promotional schedule thanks to creative coordination, as well: sleeping in shifts allows them to earn a college degree in half the time, coordinated multitasking results in dazzling public appearances, and bilingualism makes them doubly efficient at networking a Canadian crowd. The text opens with the arrival of Dr. Northridge, a neurosurgeon with plans to cure them by means of an intricate surgery merging halves of their brain within a single cranium. Despite careful planning that includes tracking by means of computer mediation how their brains interface, Dr. Northridge is surprised to find, mid-surgery, that a single cranium cannot accommodate the volume of brain that must be preserved: Charles awakens to find that he is irremediably monolingual and thus unable to finish—or even understand—the personal account of the cure that he and François had undertaken together.

This bi-graphie (sic), a cautionary tale about presumptions of progress, turns out to be very much “of two minds,” marked by deep ambivalence about medical intervention, voice and language, autonomy and interdependence, belonging and loss. It seems a fitting entrée en matière as commentary both on [End Page 129] the primacy of English in knowledge-making and the analogous superiority that is afforded continental French (of France) vis-à-vis its Francophone cousins in the rest of the world. We cannot help but note in passing how well the two-headed adventures of François and Charles characterize this project, as we draft together via computer-mediated communication, time and again bumping up against ingrained assumptions of long-held hierarchies within the Francophone world and the study of disability. These hierarchies call into question the very notion of any inclusive field of study, so ill-fitted does the western lens of disability studies sometimes seem to various regions of the Francophone world. The brain is much bigger than the cranium, as it were, and discursive operations that continually seem to delimit disability studies as we understand and practice it prevent knowledge, identification, and mutual reconnaissance (selon Paul Ricoeur).

Sustaining world languages and cultures has everything to do with the future of disability and its study. The vast majority of people with disabilities today live in the majority world, their impairments frequently the result of our political folly (see Davidson). On the other hand, the languages they speak, although spoken by millions, enter our world of knowledge-making scarcely at all. Cures for disability continue to seem desirable to many in the same way learning English or French maintains its cachet in much of the world. Colonialism has for hundreds of years embodied a certain kind of progress enacted through brutal tactics of assimilation. Martinican psychoanalyst and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, is among the earliest writers to have critiqued these assumptions and their relationship to mental health. Writing about individual and collective experience, he formulates the deleterious impact of normative expectations of dominant culture and language as an impulse to mimic them. In Peau noire, masques blancs (1952; trans. 1967), Fanon explains this process as the cause of a “complexus psycho-existential” for the colonized black man (8–9). He turns to the similarly produced psychosis and delirium of tortured Algerians he treated during their war for independence, conditions he theorized in works like Les Damnés...