- The Subject of Intellectual DisabilityA Reply to Clegg, Murphy, & Almack
As a starting point, Clegg, Murphy, and Almack contend that frameworks of policy fail both to engage with ethical theory and to fit with the complex realities of how services are delivered. Both of these points are well-supported both in their engagement with literature and in the research presented. Their Deleuzoguattarian analysis and Deleuzean ethical alternatives provide fresh and challenging insights. The key question in this rejoinder is whether their critique goes too far, or not far enough.
To begin, however, it is worth making a comment on terminology. Clegg et al. begin with a passing comment to the effect that ‘intellectual disability’ was ‘formerly learning disability in the UK and mental retardation in the United States’ (p. 359). Although this is clearly a gloss on an issue that may not be central to the paper, to overlook changes in terminology can miss important other conceptual and political shifts. One of the most important aspects of ‘ID’ is that it marks a coming together of the academic field for the first time since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the UK, the highly contested shift to ‘learning difficulties’ in the 1980s, and, to a lesser extent, ‘learning disability,’ was marked by the fact that it was the first time that people to whom that term was applied were active in promoting it.
By uncritically shifting to ID and seeming to assume that it refers to the same thing, the opportunity to keep terminology available as a political weapon for those caught in its net is unfortunate. Second, however, it cannot be regarded as a new signifier for the same concept since ‘learning’ is an activity, a practice, whereas ‘intellectual’ returns the signifier to what is assumed to be inside either the brain or mind. If the shift in academic terminology to ID does take place, and there are certainly good arguments for it, then we ought not to take this as unproblematic and neither should we anticipate that there must be a corresponding shift at the policy and service level.
The central premise of Clegg et al.’s paper is the ‘slippery’ nature of choice for people with ID and its general promotion without attention to varying levels of capacity. However, herein also lies the key problem of the paper. Choice is regarded as less than straightforward for people with ID because of their reduced capacity for making ‘informed’ choices. Central to this critique lies the troublesome figure of the liberal subject and the failure of people with ID to fit its strictures—by definition, [End Page 373] it has been argued (Simpson, 2014). The authors’ position here evinces a number of problems.
The first issue arises from a failure fully to follow through the critique of the liberal subject. Following Reinders (2000), the authors identify liberalism’s emphasis on autonomous human agency as intrinsically problematic for people with ID. People with ID, it is argued, lack the necessary capacity for the kind of rational self-determination assumed and required in a consumer society, albeit to varying degrees. However, the paper repeatedly invokes choice and the assertion that people with ID have an impaired ability to practice it, and, in doing so, fails to kill off the modern subject, as Deleuze and Guattari (1984, 1987) attempt to do. Instead, the modern subject is constantly deployed as the silent standard against which people with ID have pathological subjectivity. Hence, the specter of the liberal subject still haunts the paper as the putative norm for those who do have full mental capacity and from which deviance is determined. This is evident in the assumption that the ideology of choice does bear a close relationship to how choices are generally made, and that choice is the fundamental driver in human behavior—so, for example, the questioning of whether certain choices can be regarded as ‘reasonable’ makes implicit recourse to an assumed measure of reasonableness. Žižek highlights the condition of the modern subject:
[B]eing compelled to make decisions in a situation which remains opaque is our basic condition. We know the standard situation of...